Young, educated farmers are faces of the protest

MUMBAI: Yogesh Rayate is a 35-yearold grape exporter with a diploma in agriculture and a 17-acre farm in Nashik. Sandeep Gidde (34), an MBA, is a Sangli farmer who also works as an event manager hosting agri-exhibitions. And 47-year old Dhananjay Dhorde has a Bachelor’s degree and owns a 15-acre farm in Aurangabad.

Younger, educated farmers like them form the backbone of Kisan Kranti, the group spearheading the strike which has crippled vegetable and milk supply chains across large parts of the state. The apolitical, leaderless agitation has drawn support from 37 smaller groups. But its core members are between 30 and 50 years old. Few have participated in previous agitations even though they come from farming families.

“Our fathers did `rasta-rokos’ and hunger strikes but it led nowhere. So we decided to do something different. If you don’t pinch the nose, the mouth won’t open,” says Rayate. Significantly , the Opposition’s `Sangharsh Yatra’ just two months ago created barely a ripple.

Besides small meetings, the use of social media including Whatsaspp and Facebook helped the movement reach out to other groups, guided by Gidde’s event management skills. “I knew how to reach out to large groups of people effectively and what posts could go viral,” he says.

What drew the Kisan Kranti together was the devastating crash in prices of key crops like onions, tomatoes and tur dal over the last year. The issue touched a chord among farmers across districts.

The price crash had pushed even prosperous farmers like Rayate deeper into debt. “Grapes which cost Rs 25 per kilo to grow, fetch a price of Rs 10. Last month brinjals were selling at Rs 25 for 20 kg. It cost more to transport them to the mandi,” he said.

The final catalyst was a gram sabha meeting in Ahmednagar’s Puntamba village in April where villagers initially considered boycotting sowing. Later they decided to boycott agricultural markets instead. “They realized its only when urban food markets are affected that there will be pressure on the government,” says G Patil, an agro-markets expert who is part of Kisan Kranti.

The movement spread to the onion belt of Nashik and the milk producing regions of western Maharashtra including Sangli, Satara and Solapur. Marathwada’s districts, mainly Aurangabad, also joined.

The discontent among farmers in the north Maharashtra belt had escalated with the state’s decontrol of agricultural markets last year, says Patil. “Traders called a strike for a monthand-a-half and onion prices crashed to 5 paise,” says Patil. Later, the glut in the onion, tomato and tur crop kept prices low. Farmers ended up dumping their tomato and onion crop. By November, demonetisation added to the crisis.

Activists recall a similar agitation led by farmer leader Sharad Joshi in 1982 but this one has created greater impact. “The idea spread so fast because its time has come,” says Patil. “The new generation of farmers are more aware.They understand issues like import subsidies and the fact that crops are sometimes imported at a higher price than domestic rates.”

Kisan Kranti has also drawn professionals including lawyers and social workers, whom they rely on for advice.”We have drawn up committees for different tasks: legal advice, meetings with the government, administration and publicity ,” says Gidde.
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