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Decoding strike as a weapon for farmers and MSP as panacea

A tale of two strikes. ET examines the outcome of two farmer strikes, held a year apart and filled with aftershocks in the intervening period.

, ET Bureau|
Jul 06, 2018, 11.29 PM IST
Although the government has announced a substantial increase in MSP to woo farmers, it doesn’t provide a panacea for the agonies of the farm sector.
On April 3, 2017, the gram sabha of Puntamba village in Maharashtra’s Ahmednagar district, known more for the temple of Saibaba, passed a resolution to go on strike from June 1, 2017. Many village councils followed suit by passing similar resolutions with a charter of farmers’ demands.

The strike, the impact of which was underestimated till its start, shook political establishments as it succeeded in choking the supply lines of daily essentials like fruits, vegetables and milk to big cities. The strike soon spread to Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.

A year on, on the anniversary of the kisan strike and death of farmers in a police firing in Madhya Pradesh, farmer organisations, especially those based in North India, gave a call for a 10-day nationwide strike. However, this strike failed to evoke a similar participation as it had a year earlier.

Happening just six months from demonetisation that had hit farmers hard, the 2017 strike that saw voluntary participation by farmers was a lot different when compared with the 2018 strike.

“There was lot of pent-up discontent among farmers just before the first strike of 2017 which had not found any channel for expression,” said Ajit Navale, state general secretary of the All India Kisan Sabha who had joined Maharashtra’s voluntary farmer strike and also later led the successful Kisan Long March to Mumbai from Nashik. “It was a call given by a village. It has seen participation of young farmers who were feeling frustrated as established farmers’ organisations and leaders had made use of farmers’ issues to get individual benefits,” he said.

As governments are seen as prioritising urban requirements over rural, creating nuisance by disturbing supplies to cities has become an effective tool for farmer agitations in independent India. While the 2017 strike demonstrated how this could work, the one this year had a different ending.

There are intrinsic limitations in the use of strike as a weapon by farmers, especially by vegetable, fruit and milk farmers, due to the perishable nature of their produce. Though the agitators this year tried to forcefully stop other farmers from selling vegetables and milk, it could not be sustained for long.

“Strike is like a brahmastra for farmers and has to be used only sparingly as a farmer doesn’t have capacity to bear losses involved in wasting his produce,” said Raju Shetty, leader of the Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana.

How this factor could influence a farmer strike was evident when the Rashtriya Kisan Mahasangh was forced to call off midway the nationwide strike this year.

Daljit Singh Gill, president of the Progressive Dairy Farmers Association (PDFA) from Punjab, said: “We had in advance conveyed to the organisations who had given the call for strike our inability to participate for more than two days. Stopping sale is not possible for milk farmers and proves to be ineffective in creating any impact, as the milk plants were making milk from milk powder and continuing with supplies to the cities.”

Under pressure from PDFA, the Mahasangh called off the 10-day strike on the fifth day. Puneet Singh, another farmer leader from Punjab, said farmers from his state could stop others from politically exploiting them because they were organised and had a strong voice. “In the absence of a strong organisation representing them, Haryana farmers couldn’t say no to their sufferings,” this leader said.

While the June 2017 strike resulted in the Maharashtra government announcing loan waiver for farmers, the Kisan Long March helped in getting government nod for some crucial tribal rights over forest lands. In Madhya Pradesh, where the June 2017 strike had turned violent with farmers dying in police firing, the state government procured onions at Rs 8 a kg. In October that year, it launched a pilot of the Bhavantar Bhugtan Yojana, a scheme to support producer prices.

The broader strikes that happened across the country after the June 2017 agitation helped in generating national debate on the issue of remunerative prices for farmers, forcing the central government in its budget this year to promise a minimum support price (MSP) of 50% over the cost of production. On Wednesday, the government approved a substantial increase in the MSP of most kharif crops, which will cost the exchequer more than Rs 15,000 crore.

Organisations that have been leading the farmer unrest were quick to take credit for the government decision on MSP. Yogendra Yadav, founder of the Jai Kisan Andolan, said: “We congratulate all farmers’ organisations for the heroic and historic struggle they have collectively waged against the anti-farmer Modi government for the last four years, which compelled this government to admit that remunerative prices are not being given to farmers and agrarian distress is being neglected.”

The past year also saw more than 180 farmer organisations or groups coming together under the All India Kisan Sangharsh Samiti (AIKSS) by keeping aside their political differences and ideologies to prepare two Bills on farmers’ issues to be tabled in Parliament, and demand a special session of Parliament to discuss agrarian crisis. The Bills received support of 27 political parties.

In comparison, this year’s strike produced much less, though Navale, whose AIKS is also part of AIKSS, said it did achieve “a big thing”. “This year’s strike forced the Prime Minister to break his silence on the farmers’ issue and do a Man Ki Baat with them,” he said, adding, “which probably means that more than the constitutional ways, it’s the nuisance value of the farmers which can force governments to pay attention.”

Although the government has announced a substantial increase in MSP to woo farmers, it doesn’t provide a panacea for the agonies of the farm sector. Some farmer leaders said the higher price was only a promise still, and that the fulfilment of it depended upon government procurement and support.

Meanwhile, the farmer organisations with political ambitions that plan to contest the next general elections will be keenly observing the implementation of the promised MSP hike, knowing well that governments are ill prepared for it.
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