28 December 2010

Kisan Swaraj Yatra in North India

Kisan Swaraj Yatra (Farmers Freedom Tour) traveled through the states of Uttar Pradesh, UttarakhandHimachal Pradesh, Haryana, Punjab and Rajasthan in north India during 25 November-10 December 2010. This last leg of the Yatra is gaining momentum as the yatris and the farmers they meet on the way inspire each other.

Logo of Kisan Swaraj Yatra. © Kisan Swaraj Yatra
The current write-up being the fourth in a series of write-ups, the earlier ones were on the 28th day of the Yatra and then on the 35th day of the Yatra coinciding with President Obama's visit and then the travels of the Yatra in eastern India and all these have been based on the blogs maintained by the yatris. To put it in perspective, the Yatra started on 2nd October 2010, the 141st birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, and ended on 11 December 2010 at his samadhi (memorial), Rajghat, New Delhi.

Yatris entered Uttar Pradesh through the Valmiki reserve forest bordering Bihar and Nepal and their first stop on 25 November 2010 was in Kushinagar, where Buddha attained nirvana (final deathless state with the soul abandoning the body). In the meeting with farmers there were discussions on 750 acres of  being lost to some project. Later in the day the yatris reached Gorakhpur where there was a rally with active participation from Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU), Poorvanchal Gramin Seva Samiti, Gramin and Development Services and Farmers Club, Mahirajgunj that ended with a public meeting at Subhas Bose Chowk . The meeting raised issues of Genetically Modified food (particularly Bt Brinjal), the forthcoming legislation's on biotechnology and seeds, experimental research for private companies by publicly funded institutions, and trials of such crops in fields without informing the  farmers and their neighbours. The yatris moved to Durain village, Varaniasi, and stayed for the night in a school, which is slightly different as the children are taught to critically question the text book knowledge and are very much aware of the political system and social issues.

Govindacharya addressing at Subhas Bose Chowk, Gorakhpur, UP, 25 November 2010. © Kisan Swaraj Yatra

There was convergence with BKU farmers who have been traveling from village to village in three districts in and around Varanasi. The day (26 November 2010) began with an interaction with the villagers in the school who like the students were apprehensive of the Yatra thinking it to be a political exercise, but appreciated it as they came to know that the Yatra is genuine about its concern for farmers and farming. Journey to Sultanpur was slow because of the traffic jam in each and every small town on the way, but the farmers there were eagerly waiting who welcomed the yatris by rendering slogans to save Indian agriculture. In the meeting, the need for a second freedom to stop the takeover of our land, water and seed by transnational corporates, which is unforrtunately  being mediated through the Indian government, was raised. There was a candle light march. The yatris left for Lucknow where they spent the next day (27 November 2010).

Candle light march at Sultanpur, UP, 26 November 2010. © Kisan Swaraj Yatra

In  a meeting at Shaheed Smarak, BKU members vowed to stop all trials of Genetically Modified (GM) crops. More importantly, women farmers vowed to fight seed sovereignty.

Women farmers vow to fight for seed sovreignity at Shahid Smarak, Lucknow, 27 November 2010. © Kisan Swaraj Yatra

Travel from Lucknow to Moradabad was slow because of long delays at the number of railway crossings and a distance of 350 kilometers took 16 hours. The delay and had thinned down the farmers presence but there were informal discussions in smaller groups on 28 November 2010. Later, in a meeting at Kisan Bhawan, Chajlet  (a  building built by funds from BKU members) there was discussion about how farmers have always been at the receiving end and how there are a lot of restrictions on the pricing of primary produce, as against the processed goods.

Meeting and Kisan Bhawan, Chajlet, 28 November 2010. © Kisan Swaraj Yatra

A dip at the Ganges and the scenic beauty of Uttarakhand rejuvenated the yatris in the land of Chipko movement and Beej bachao andolon on 29 November 2010. Entry to the bathing ghat for VIPs (Very Important Persons) was a symbolic protest to convey that farmers' are important for the nation. Discussion with BKU members and farmers at Haridwar as also the meeting  at Dehradun later in the day brought about the immediate concerns of pricing, marketing, damage to crops by wild life, compensation for this year's crop loss due to unprecedented drought followed by heave rains subsequently,  settlement of payments to sugarcane farmers that has been pending for the last three years as also the medium-to-long term concerns of  regularization of land title including land title for women, seed sovereignty, environmental sustainability, state should promote wisdom of local communities that has emerged through years of experience, and state policies on organic farming should be connected with livelihood and culture of people and not be equated with market-based organic farming and cannot go hand-in-hand with the propagation of chemical-fertilizer based agriculture.

Slogan shouting reverberating the air, Haridwar, 29 November 2010. © Kisan Swaraj Yatra

The Yatra moves to Himachal Pradesh where they stay overnight at Gurudwara Paonta Sahib and begin the next day (30 November 2010) with an early morning breakfast of gajar ka halwa. The collapse of a bridge in the area, harvest activities and the marriage season kept the yatris in a relaxed mood. An interaction with the Himachal Kisan Sabha a non-political party affiliated outfit brought about the issues of appropriate pricing for farmers, state facilitation for life and health insurance policies for all farmer households, the difficulties with hybrid seeds as the farmers cannot use them for further reproduction.

Farmers at Paonta Sahib, Himachal Pradesh, 30 November 2010. © Kisan Swaraj Yatra

On the same day the yatris leave for Haryana and were welcomed by the waiting farmers into the state at Yamunanagar and then the Yatra moved into Pipli village in Kurukshetra where there was a meeting in which the state's BKU leader, Gurnam Singh, welcomed the yatris and the ensuing discussion the high cost of water for irrigation (`6,000 per acre), non-implementation of the recommendations by the National Commission on Farmers (particularly the price support), soil degradation and the need to conserve resources for a sustainable agriculture came up. The yatris moved on to Mohra village in Ambala where they were welcomed by slogan shouting farmers who also donated generously for the Yatra.

Farmers welcome the Yatra at Mohara, Haryana, 30 November 2010. © Kisan Swaraj Yatra

After spending the night at Gurudwara Bhattha Sahib the yatris start the day (2 December 2010) with a meeting in Rupnagar (Ropar), Punjab attended by farmers, teachers, journalists and environmentalists. On the current agrarian crisis there was serious discussion and the way forward was to look up to ecological farming with active participation from farmers and facilitating policies by the government. The Yatra moved on the the Students' Centre, Punjab Unviersity, Chandigarh, where they interacted with students drawn from human rights, social work, botany and environmental sciences among others and were also joined by the singer Rabbi Shergill who urged the youth to save the fertile lands of Punjab. The police tried to prevent the final event of the day at Sector 17 Plaza with this the yatris rented the air with impromptu slogan “Kitna dum hai daman mein tere, dekh liya aur dekhenge; kitni jagah hai jail mein tere, dekh liya aur dekhenge, Badi sharm ki baat hai, police unke saath hai, Hamaare haath mein jhande hai, police ke haath mein dande hai.” (How much power is there in your suppression, we have seen and we will see; how much space is there in your prison, we have seen and we will see; It is a matter of shame, that police is with them; We have in our hands a flag,  The policy have in their hands a staff.)

Street play, Students Centre (StuC), Punjab University, Chandigarh.  © Kisan Swaraj Yatra

On 3 December 2010 the yatris started with a demonstration against the Punjab Agricultural University  (PAU). Ludhiana because of its anti-farmer, anti-nature and pro-Monsanto agenda and were joined by past employees, social activists and also some students. A question mark was raised against technology that destroys environment, makes food toxic and puts farmers at the receiving end. Rajbir Singh of All India Pingalwara Charitable Society challenged the scientists to match his crops.The next event of the day at Khanna mandi was addressed by a retired senior entomologist of PAU who advised against using toxic chemical pesticides. The last event of the day at Dhudike, the historical village which was the birth place of Lala Lajpat Rai had interactions with farmers and discussed about farmer indebtedness, crop pricing, problems of tenant farmers and agricultural labourers.

Protest at Punjab Agricultural University, Ludhiana, 3 December 2010. © Kisan Swaraj Yatra

The next morning (4 December 2010) started in Bhotna village, Barnala where many farmer households are getting back to millet-based food and women-folk are also growing pesticide-free vegetables in their kitchen garden. In the meeting that followed, Punjabi songs by Jagdeesh Papra and his team pointed out the plight of  sone da desh (land of gold), about poison being harvested from the lands and a message of hope to farmers feeling suicidal and also provided support to a spontaneous Telegu song by Ramesh on how our land is being mortaged by our rulers thus, giving a pan-Indian feeling to the Yatra. The yatris moved on and were welcomed as they passed by Bajakhana, Jalal and other villages. In the final meeting of the day at Jaitu,  organic farmers were felicitated and a former agriculture minister of the state government Sardar Sukhdev Singh Badal was asked questions on environmental health issues, indebtedness of farmers, water contamination, depletion of ground water and soil degradation.

Organic farmers felicitation at Jaitu, 4 December 2010. © Kisan Swaraj Yatra

Last day in Punjab (5 December 2010) started at the Goniyana Gurudwara where the need for urban consumers to connect with farmers and food was emphasized. The discussion also focused on how the farmer needs to think beyond single season specific focus on yield maximization. The Yatra stopped at the seventh annual Virasat mela, Bathinda, that showcases the cultural heritage of the Malwa region, and subsequently moved on through the villages of Mehta, Jaisinghwala and Kheoyali.

The Yatra at Virasat Mela, Bathinda, 5 December 2010. © Kisan Swaraj Yatra

The Yatra has now reached Rajasthan (6 December 2010) and the day began with cold water bath at 3.00am during winter at the Dharmasala in Sangaria, but was made up by the hot tea served by Mandeep Singh Dhaliwal, a New Zealand returned engineer-turned-natural farmer.  Yatris reached Dhaban at 5.00am to join the villagers in the prabhat pheri, a one and a half hour long procession singing shabad kirtans and bhajans. Despite the cold winter, this communal event gave the yatris a warm glowing feeling. A visit to the natural farm of Kishan Jakhar, who follows the zero-budget principle of Subhas Palekar,  invigorated the yatris further. There was a meeting with media persons and others at Hanumangarh followed by an interaction with representatives from Khet Kalyan Morcha and Nature Human Centric Peoples Movement at Sri Ganganagar. The issue of local communities’ rights over their resources, atrocities by the Indian defense services in the area, non-payment of compensation to tenant farmers and agricultural workers for the landmines placed in agricultural fields, non-supply of irrigation water and police firing a few years back where seven farmers had to lay down their lives were discussed. Some of these issues also came up in Gharsana, after which the yatris left for Urmul Setu where they were severed hot piping food for dinner at midnight.

Another morning of biting cold started with the team splitting into two (7 December 2010). A public meeting at Ambedkar Chowk, Nokha where some of the contemporary burning issues are the following There has been no procurement of Bajra even after the announcement of a support price, the operation of a land mafia that sells of farmers' lands without the latter's knowledge, younger generation have little attachment with land, compound interests charged by banks on agricultural loans, purchased seeds that did not germinate and that the farmers have to wait for about 15 days in the market yard to sell grain. Interaction with farmer at a village named Sri Balaji brought out a demand/endorsement for a farmers income commission and a meeting with  95 year old freedom fighter, Mahavir Gahlot, brought out the reminiscences of Mahatma Gandhi.

One team of yatris had reached Jodhpur (8 December 2010) and had interactions with agricultural scientists from Central Arid Zone Research Institute (CAZRI) and put forth to them four points - income security for all farming households; environmental sustainability in Indian agriculture; securing rights of farmers over their resources like land, seed and water; and ensuring safe, diverse, nutritious and adequate food for all. Director of CAZRI agreed that these are relevant issues and these need to be balanced with the prime concern of the government of bringing about 4 per cent growth in agriculture. The Director also pointed out that one of the objectives of the institute is to reduce costs to the farmers and come up with environment-friendly technologies.

Meeting at Central Arid Zone Research Institute (CAZRI), Jodhpur, 8 December 2010. © Kisan Swaraj Yatra

Some other issues that came up are the relevance of adequate price support and their relationship with agricultural share in Gross Domestic Product (GDP), small holdings being productive and efficient but are not being sustainable because of high costs, some of the pro-farmer initiative in seed research are very minuscule and do not stand a chance against the corporatization of the seed market and this not only bring in a case for farmers' rights but also on researchers' rights, import of exotic varieties in a mass scale is eroding local diversity,  the rellevance of varietal diversity to address temperature and rainfall variation, one should neither import nor oppose technology blindly, and that technology should be build on the existing local culture and livelihood practices. Later in the day the yatris were accompanied by Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) members from Jawaja village and then moved on to Madkochra village where the Yatra witnessed one of the best interactions and discussions.

Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) member with yatris, Madkochar, 8 December 2010. © Kisan Swaraj Yatra

On the last day in Rajasthan (9 December 2010) the yatris first went to Renwal where the delay added to the somber mood, as 8317 hectares of land is being acquired for a housing project and that too when crops are being harvested in many places after 12 long years. With this immediate problem in hand, the Yatra's agenda looked so distant. With urging some member agreed to accompany the Yatra to Jaipur and also take up the issue in court. In Jaipur, there was a public meeting with activists, journalists, students, academics and common citizens coming to listen to the experience of yatris. Dr Surjit Singh (Director, Institute of Development Studies) pointed out the relevance of decentralized planning as a means to address many problems. He also pointed out how liberalized trade has priced out oilseed farmers. Dr VS Vyas (Vice Chairman, State Planning Board, Rajasthan) mentioned that the Yatra is encouraging and shows that  he state has to have a greater role, as the private sector will not address the issues of farmer.

The penultimate day of the Yatra (10 December 2010) started with a meeting at Social Centre for Rural Initiative and Advancement (SCRIA), Khori, Rewari, Haryana where farmers took over slogan shouting and women farmers donated. The last public meeting in the evening was at Nityanand School, Rohtak with all set to go to Rajghat.

Women farmers donating for the Yatra, Khori, Haryana, 9 December 2010. © Kisan Swaraj Yatra
On the final day (11 December 2010) of the Yatra, some of the yatris met Ms Sonia Gandhi and there was a day long meeting at Gandhi Darshan after paying obeisance to Mahatma Gandhi at Rajghat, New Delhi. We will come up with a write-up on this soon.

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