Mumbai march and implications

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Mumbai march and implications

It was the combined strength of the gathered farmers and tribals which made the Government accept their demands. It was a victory of people’s power

For a country obsessed with corruption, crime and cinema, the focus on the crisis in agriculture as magnified by the farmers’ protest march from Nashik to Mumbai was a welcome change. For it brought the attention to some of the compelling and perennial problems that afflict India's story — farmers' distress. It also served as a reminder to the Government, be it at the Centre or State, about the need to address farmers problems in right earnest. It goes to the credit of the Fadnavis Government in Maharashtra to defuse the crisis that had the potential to snowball into a national issue. On Monday, Fadnavis accepted all demands of agitating farmers and landless tribals of Maharashtra — demonstrating not only good political acumen but also reasserting the BJP's sincerity in dealing with the problems faced by farmers and the landless who are dependent on farming.

One notable feature of this protest was the inclusion of a large number of landless tribals in the group that walked determinedly for 180 kilometres for over six days to assert their grievances. What's unique about this agitation is that it was not only about farm loan-waiver but a whole lot of other issues, including the overhaul of a river linking plan, implementation of Forest Rights Act (FRA) and water conservation projects. The group comprised of people from tribal belts such as Kalwan, Sargana and Dindori in Nashik; Talasari, Mokhada and Jawhar in Palghar; Shahapur and Murbad in Thane; and parts of Jalgaon. Many of these tribals are landless and, therefore, do not owe any institutional loan. Given the dwindling farm income, snowballing effects of drought and inadequate market linkages, the stress on landless labourers and tribals, who till the forest land, has been aggravating. It is the demand of the latter — of getting rights of the small forest or community plots — that changes the dynamics of this agitation and, perhaps, could be a pointer for other Governments as well.

This is especially critical for States going to polls soon that have substantial tribal population such as Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. The FRA, enacted in 2006, basically does two things: Grants legal recognition to the rights of traditional forest dwelling communities, partially correcting the injustice caused by the forest laws; and makes a beginning towards giving communities and the public a voice in forest and wildlife conservation. The rights include land rights, use right and right to protect and conserve.

However, as data by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs mandated with implementing the FRA shows, States have not been acting proactively on this count. Twelve years after the Act was enacted, only about 46 per cent of community forest rights titles have been distributed. Some States like Tamil Nadu (zero per cent), Goa (2.15 per cent) and West Bengal (6.78 per cent) have been no starters and had to face the wrath of people in times to come. Madhya Pradesh (69.19 per cent) and Jharkhand (52.43 per cent) have done exceedingly well. The need is to strengthen institutional mechanism to expedite this across all States — naturally given their subdued voice, political parties in Government begin to act only after an organised effort like the Mumbai March comes to the fore. Fadnavis took a step in the right direction by announcing the constitution of a committee comprising representatives of the Akhil Bhartiya Kisan Sabha (AIKS), affiliated to the CPI-M, which was spearheading this protest march. The State Government said the issue of forest land transfer rights would be resolved within six months and the land would be allotted to the tribals, provided they submit proof that they have been cultivating the land since pre-2005, a clause mandated by the FRA. 

Fadnavis said on Monday, “We have agreed to set up a committee to hand over forest land used for farming, to tribals and farmers. A meeting was held with representatives of farmers and adivasis at Vidhan Bhavan. We have agreed to set up a committee to allot agricultural land to tribals provided they submit a proof of pre-2005 land cultivation. We have accepted almost all their demands”. The State Government also agreed to the demands on loan-waiver since 2008, minimum support price for farm produce the Narpar-Daman Ganga river linking project, 31 water conservation projects among others.

In days ahead, we are likely to witness scaling up of the debate around FRA — and with general election not too far away, many hope this long-pending issue will be taken up on a priority by the Government  and many State Governments. What reinforces the confidence of many tribal rights activists is the fact that a very committed and veteran tribal leader in Jual Oram is at the helm in the nodal Tribal Affairs Ministry.

(The writer is a strategic communications professional)

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