NEW DELHI - It took a trek of about 180 kilometers to India’s financial capital, Mumbai, for tens of thousands of farmers in the Maharashtra state to win assurances of respite from loans and ownership rights over forest land they are tilling.
Named the “Long March,” the farmers' protest in one of India’s most prosperous states highlighted how the country’s growing economy has failed to improve farm incomes.
Wearing red caps and waving red flags, the protesters, who included men, and women both young and old, walked for six days to reach a central park early Monday in Mumbai. The farmers had vowed to camp in the city until their demands were met and march to the state assembly building.
After meeting farmers' representatives, Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis announced a series of steps to alleviate the distress in the state's rural sector. This included granting ownership rights to forest land they had been tilling for decades.
“We have met almost all their demands,” Fadnavis said. “Within the next six months, we will accept the claims made and transfer the forest land according to the law,” he said.
Fadnavis said a scheme to waive off agricultural loans in the aftermath of crop failures will be expanded to include more farmers. The government had announced a loan waiver plan of about $5 billion last year, but that failed to give relief to all the distressed farmers.
Most of the farmers who reached Mumbai were either landless, who have been eking a living off cultivating patches of forest land, or those who own small, unirrigated tracts of land that yield small incomes that are quickly wiped away in the event of poor monsoons or unseasonable rains.
Ashok Dhawale, president of the All India Kisan Sabha that organized the protest, had hoped the visibility the farmers' protest received in Mumbai would help their cause.
“We are hoping with this pressure the government comes to an honorable settlement,” he said.
This is the second major protest by farmers in the state in less than a year. Last year, they dumped milk and vegetables on highways to protest a slump in prices that wiped out profits despite a bumper crop.
Rural distress has been deepening in the past decade. The average income of farmers in 17 states, according to a 2016 government economic survey, is a meager $300 per year.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has promised to double farm incomes in five years, but so far, the countryside has seen little impact.
Analysts say spiraling protests by farmers could pose a significant challenge to his Bharatiya Janata party during general elections scheduled for next year.
Maharashtra is not the only state to witness farmers' unrest. Protests have also erupted in several states such as Madhya Pradesh and Tamil Nadu in the past year.
Leaders of farmers organizations said they would bring their protests to major cities to get better attention. A huge rally is being planned for next month in New Delhi.