The streets of quaint town of Shimla turned red on April 3 as thousands of farmers from the state marched towards the state Vidhan Sabha. Under the banner of Himachal Kisan Sabha (an affiliate of All India Kisan Sabha) these farmers joined their kin from rest of the country who have been pushing for relief from the ongoing agrarian crisis over the last one year.
The protest in Shimla however, was different and the farmers had some unique and specific demands. The prime demands are as follow-
Land in particular is an important issue in the state where only 11 percent of land (5,43,365 hectares) is tillable. The average land holding is less than 0.5 hectares. With meagre land per holding, it is difficult for peasants to survive on agriculture alone. Small and marginal farmers (less than 2.0 hectares of land) constitute 87.95 per cent of total peasant population and have 54.17 per cent of the total land. Even as the land holdings are increasing but the land per family is reducing substantially. This cannot be a sustainable position for a healthy state of affairs for the people dependent on agriculture.
People have had to encroach on land around their houses. Interestingly, all fallow land in Himachal is forest land. Hence such encroachments are seen by the courts as an evil design of the farmers. The poor, Dalits and marginal farmers have hence become victims of the ire of the courts and the government.
Earlier (prior to 1980), ‘new taur’ used to be followed. This meant that the government would break would distribute land to the landless for their survival. To ensure that they do not part away with such land, riders were added and Section 118 of the Land Reforms and Tenancy Act were brought in where the land could not be bought by a non-agriculturist in Himachal. This safeguard was to protect the agricultural land for farmers from land sharks and real estate giants.
The present BJP government on the one hand intends to evict farmers from their land which they have been tilling for decades and on the other hand is trying to ease Section 118. This will ensure that land sharks, mainly from adjoining states, can buy land in the state for various commercial purposes. This can further displace the people, especially those who are small and marginal land holders. This is hence a major reason for resentment in the farmers and hence regular larger mobilisations by then should not be a surprise for anyone.
A great crisis is looming over the peasantry in Himachal and the dwindling state support is only making things worse. For years where the strong service sector has helped families depended on agriculture, it is now shrinking with an alarming pace. While the service sector was developed over the years from 1970 to 1995 reaching a time where almost one family member from every third house was involved in a government, successive governments have been slashing down the human resources of several sectors of social importance.
In their paranoia to contain fiscal these cuts have been made hurting sectors like health, education, electricity and the public works. More than 1,00,000 jobs have either been scrapped or declared as dead cadre.
So, the issues of the farmers are not just about small land holdings but also by the withdrawal of support from a state that was quite promising in the past.
Further, if the cropping pattern in the state is studied one would find that only a few crops are proving to be remunerative for the state farmers. While apple cultivation, off season vegetables production and in a few places stone fruits production is spewing profits rest of the farmers are basically indulged in subsistence agriculture. The land under apple cultivation is just 6.6 per cent of the total tillable land. Similarly, for other fruits it is just 2 per cent. The land for vegetable production is just 3.2 per cent of the total land. So basically, a whopping 89 per cent of the state’s tillable land is supporting non-profitable agriculture.
Another major reason for such a situation is that the successive state governments have not paid heed to irrigation. The total land under irrigation has also decreased from 19 per cent to 16 per cent. This means that 84 per cent of the entire sown area is dependent on rains or snow. No surprise that the percentage of barren land has increased from 4 per cent to 14 per cent.
Women who undeniably play the most important role in the farming operations almost outnumbered men in the April 3 march. As women practically run dairy in villages with far greater participation than their male counterparts, they thronged the streets demanding declaration of price of milk which should not be less than a profitable amount.
It is important to bring the land issue to the forefront which involves both the judiciary and the state government and provisions under the Forest Rights Act needs to be invoked.
Interestingly neither the farmers’ movement nor the government is interested in engaging with this important legislation. Not a big surprise that even after 10 years of the Act (Forest Rights) no land has been allotted to the marginalised communities. Despite there being two tribal districts namely Lahaul-Spiti and Kinnaur and a few more tribal communities in other districts, the engagement to stake claim has been very poor. Very few tribal communities and individuals have been mobilised to stake claims over the land owned by them. The forest dwellers are yet to be considered with great prominence by anybody.
While the large mobilisation of the farmers will definitely boost their morale for further advances but more work needs to done to save their struggle from being reduced to a sheer political rhetoric.