The photograph of the blistered and lacerated foot of a farmer is perhaps not the best sight that one expects to see early morning on the front page of a newspaper, but it certainly has a way of convincing the powers that be that all is not well with the way the government has been treating the farmers of the country. The photograph referred to was of the foot of one who had marched barefoot about 180 km to Mumbai for nearly a week under a blazing sun along with 35,000 farmers like him. The blistered foot also shook up India’s fincial capital to the extent that it filly had to come to terms with those who feed the country. After all, the main demands of the Left-backed farmers can hardly be deemed unreasoble. They included the unconditiol coverage of the loan waiver scheme and the transfer of forest land to those who had been tilling it for generations. The farmers also wanted the price of their produce to be fixed at one-and-a-half times the cost of production, in line with the recommendations of a panel that had been set up earlier. The farmers have also sought compensation for their cotton crop hit by hailstorm and a pest.
Chandrakant Patil, Revenue Minister of Maharashtra, lost no time in claiming that “all the demands” had been accepted. Chief Minister Devendra Fadvis qualified his statement to some extent by saying that “almost all their demands” had been accepted. Unfortutely, there was no clarity on the purported changes to the loan waiver scheme. And since the Assembly is in session in Maharashtra, the State government cannot officially make any key announcements outside the House. On the question of land rights, the government appears to have maged to buy time. “We have agreed to set up a committee to allot agricultural land to tribals provided they submit proof of pre-2006 land cultivation,” Fadvis said. “Within six months, all disputes related to forest land will be settled,” he added. Murabhai Bhavar, a 74-year-old farmer pointed out that for three generations the family had cultivated crops on a two-acre plot but that it still does not own the plot. “The land we till should be registered in our me,” Bhavar said. Revenue Minister Patil addressed the farmers camping at Azad Maidan in south Mumbai in the presence of CPM general secretary Sitaram Yechury. The “Long March” of the farmers, which started in shik a week ago, was organized by the CPM-affiliated All India Kisan Sabha.
It is pertinent to mention here that the loan waiver scheme in Maharashtra was introduced last year under pressure from allies, and was a knee-jerk reaction to a somewhat similar project announced by the BJP government in Uttar Pradesh to fulfil an election promise. As such, regardless of how judicious and practicable the scheme might be, it is now a case of a government having to honour an earlier promise. And since it has to honour such promises made earlier, it is only fair that it should be expected to do so without farmers having to walk a distance of 180 km barefoot in the blazing sun. The bottom line of such issues should be clear to all ambitious and adventurous politicians: it is necessary to weigh all the pros and cons before making promises that involve public money and public property, but that having made a promise publicly any government is due to honour the promise no matter what it costs to do so. In India, the common experience is that ministers and politicians seldom stop to think of what they glibly give away, as long as it is public property and not what belongs to them. A more important undertaking than assessing the value of what politicians recklessly give away is to find ways of making them realize that they cannot go on playing ducks and drakes with public property.