Sugar barons grip on rural Maharashtra

THE DISCIPLINED 180-KM LONG TREK between March 6-12 of an estimated 25,000 farmers of the western seaboard state of Maharashtra — India’s most industrialised state (pop.115 million) — from Nasik to Mumbai to protest the “anti-farmer policies” of the state government, has once again stirred — or should have stirred — the collective conscience of right-thinking citizens across the country, particularly within academia and the intelligentsia. The agitation of farmers, who constitute 45 percent of the state’s population, is as legitimate as it is overdue. Two consecutive years of drought, chronic insufficiency of bank credit and unremunerative prices for agriculture produce have reduced this proud and dignified community to the status of second-class citizens. In the past two years, over 5,000 deeply impoverished farmers have ended their lives by taking recourse to suicide.

Mass agitations for a fair deal for farmers who toil to feed the nation, are hardly a novelty in Maharashtra which has a long history of failed peasant revolts. The late farmers’ leader Sharad Joshi (1931-1991) who gave up a cushy United Nations job to return to India in the 1980s to lead a Nasik-based crusade for fair remunerative prices for agriculture produce, threw in the towel and allowed himself to be co-opted into the establishment as chairman of the toothless Agriculture Prices Commission, and died a bitter, disillusioned individual.

Yet, the solutions he proposed for ameliorating, even if not ending, the prolonged poverty and distress in rural Maharashtra — free markets without government intervention for agriculture produce, all-weather rural roads and telecommunications to enable farmers easy access to urban markets, equitable irrigation management and crop diversification to reduce sown area under water-intensive sugarcane, full freedom for the growth of a massive food and agri processing industry, contract farming and direct access for industry including multinationals to farm gates, and universalisation of high-quality primary education — are as valid today as when he tried to market them to the country’s deaf and dumb establishment 40 years ago. 

Unfortunately, there was little support within the country’s urban-oriented media or pontificating intelligentsia focused on solving global rather than national problems. Consequently, rural Maharashtra continues to be dominated by Croesus-rich turncoat politicians, who after positioning themselves as champions of farmers, have transformed into politically powerful sugar barons who have not only bankrupted the state’s once thriving rural cooperative banks, but have also converted the state’s water resources to their own use. The solution for the thousand unnatural shocks that Maharashtra’s diligent and high-potential farmers have had to endure isn’t loan waivers, but structural free market reforms, quality primary education and equitable law and order to break the stranglehold of thuggish rural politicians and sugar barons over this benighted state.