As I made my way towards Ramlila Maidan on the evening of 5 September, the red flags kept growing in number. It was nearly 8 pm, and the daylong farmers’ protest in the national capital was drawing to a close. Many of the farmers were gathering their belongings and rushing to the nearby New Delhi railway station. But Ramlila Maidan was still buzzing—a few thousand of the estimated three lakh protesters still remained, having made plans to leave the following day. People were huddled together in groups, chatting at the end of a tiring day. Some were queuing up for dinner, being sold at Rs 20 per head, or at a water tanker provided by the Delhi Jal Board. A man in a red shirt shouted slogans about the government’s lies as he left. Many protesters had already dozed off.
A sea of red tents had been erected to house the protesters for the night. Walking through them, I met a group from Nashik district in Maharashtra. “The government won’t let us work in the forest,” Dileep Garay, a 34-year-old daily-wage agricultural worker who lives near the Ahmednagar forest range, told me. He used to cultivate forest land in the past, but the state’s forest department has restricted the efforts of the local agricultural workers to access the area to supplement their meagre incomes. “We are all labourers. How will we earn our living?”
Garay or his wife have attended similar protest rallies every year since 2012, the most recent of which was the Kisan Long March from Nashik to Mumbai, organised by the All India Kisan Sabha, the peasants’ wing of the Communist Party of India, earlier this year. Despite Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis agreeing, after the march, to fulfil his earlier promises of a farm loan waiver and better implementation of the Forest Rights Act, Garay said there has been no improvement in their situation.
The AIKS organised the Delhi protest as well, along with the Centre of Indian Trade Unions and the All India Agricultural Workers’ Union. Coordinators from the three organisations had mobilised contingents from different villages. Their demands include proper implementation of government schemes, including increasing the minimum wages under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, as well as better access to health, education, housing and food security.
“The government is useless, it doesn’t care about us,” Mohan, an agricultural labourer from Palghar in Maharashtra, said. He and his wife, Girija, had left their child with Girija’s sister in order to attend the protest. Their primary concern was the implementation of the MGNREGA. “We are supposed to get a hundred days of work,” Mohan told me, “but I don’t know anyone who got more than thirty-five days of work. And if we do get to work, they pay us after six months. Sometimes, they don’t even bother.”
As we spoke, other protesters from Mohan’s district had gathered around us. Subhash Gowre, who works in a government school in Palghar, also expressed his anger at the chief minister’s broken promise. Despite announcing a Rs 34,000-crore waiver in June 2017, the state government had disbursed only Rs 13,700 crore by the time of the long march—Fadnavis claimed in July that payments amounting to Rs 22,000 crore had been authorised.
“We have filled online forms,” Gowre said. “We have walked and run around, arranged computers to do all this.” There are no factories in Palghar, he added.“There is nowhere to work, nowhere to go. During the elections we were told we would become like Gujarat, we would become developed, would have cheap electricity. But there is nothing. What little work there was has also gone. Where will we work? What will we eat?”
“This government has always made us run,” one onlooker said. “First they made us link our ration card with Aadhaar.” Another chimed in: “But then they made us run for our rations too.” After demonetisation, Gowre said, “We all ran to the bank. Somehow, we scraped together Rs 500 to open a State Bank of India account. Now, whenever we go to the bank, they say our account has been closed.”
Despite the anger among the protesters from Maharashtra at their state government’s inaction on the loan waiver, farmers from other states took heart from the little progress that had been achieved. Santosh, a 25-year-old farmer from Dharwad in Karnataka, told me he had met some people from Maharashtra whose loans had been waived, and that he hoped the same would happen to him. “I have quite a lot of debt, of which my father and I share the burden, but hopefully, this agitation will force the government to listen.”
When I asked him what other difficulties he faced, he spoke about the difficulty in getting subsidised gas. “At least under the previous government it was Rs 450, but now, after this new scheme, things have become so much more difficult.” He was referring to the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana, through which the government seeks to provide five crore LPG connections to families below the poverty line. Most of the people I spoke to were familiar with the scheme, but complained about middlemen exploiting those in need and the economics underneath its execution. Under the scheme, the connection and the first cylinder are free, but the installation cost is adjusted against the subsidy for future cylinders. As a result, impoverished families are forced to buy refills at market rates, which have significantly risen since the scheme was introduced. “We have to pay off an EMI as well, which is very difficult for my family to do,” Santosh said. “We use our gas very rarely, mostly when my mother is too sick to gather firewood.”
Among the facilities provided by the protest’s organisers was a medical tent staffed by members of the Delhi Sales and Medical Representatives Organisation, which is affiliated to the CITU. Pankaj Kumar, general secretary of the DSMRO, was treating many of the protesters for basic health issues. “They don’t have anything back there,” he told me. “The ratio of doctors to people is terrible. Our country doesn’t have a healthcare system. Nobody knows. Nobody cares. They talk about GST and demonetisation, but what about a clear-cut healthcare policy?” He said that he had provided many people their first ever taste of medicine at the tent. “If you look at the body of a 28-year-old man in an urban area and compare him with any other 28-year-old here, you will notice that generally, there’s a health problem.”
In one corner, a stall was selling Marxist literature. It was run by Devendra Nath, who owns a bookshop in Kanpur and has been setting up similar stalls at rallies since 1972. “Sometimes, I give books out to people for Rs 5,” he told me. “If people read this literature, maybe they can learn more about their plight. I want to work to counter the narrative of nationalism.” He had stopped travelling to ralliesin the 1990s, but his daughter gave him some money to continue his mission once she graduated from an IIT in 2005.
Next to the makeshift medical camp was a tent with a sign on it that said, “Orissa.” There, I met Taraka, who cooks midday meals for a government school in Koraput. “I have been to five different rallies now,” she said, “and I hope the government gives our village more work. It was really difficult for me two years ago, because my parents couldn’t work and there was no pension. I still don’t think they will give us any pension. Nobody can work after the age of 65. I have five people to take care of.” She wanted the government to provide more employment opportunities in rural areas. “We keep hearing about these schemes, but if they could give us work—and not just for a hundred, but two hundred days—things could be easier. If not for my job, my family would never be able to survive.”
Despite the anger and sense of betrayal the protesters felt, every group I spoke to said they were hopeful. Most had travelled to Delhi at their own cost, and were hoping to get something out of the protest. “It feels good to see so many people present,” Mohan told me.
“Kaam toh aise hi hota hai,” Garay said. “Sarkar aaj ke liye toh hamein nahin bhoolegi”—This is the only way work gets done. For today, at least, the government will not forget us.