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.”