Puntamba: The Maharashtra village that triggered the farm loan waiver stir
Puntamba, Maharashtra: Sarjerao Jadhav, a farmer in Puntamba village of Ahmednagar district in Maharashtra, remembers the day when a special gram sabha (village panchayat assembly) passed the resolution saying farmers would go on strike from 1 June.
“On 3 April, when we moved this resolution, we thought we would begin with some 10 villages near Puntamba and the strike would take at least one year to make an impact. We had no idea the strike would achieve nearly 80% of its goals in three months only,” Jadhav says.
A day after the Maharashtra government declared a total farm loan waiver with certain riders, Puntamba wears a festive look. Jadhav and his fellow members of the Kisan Kranti Core Committee walk in a celebratory procession through the village. The procession culminates in an informal gathering at the very village panchayat hall where the gram sabha adopted the resolution. Sarjerao Jadhav, articulate and active, is justified in feeling a bit surprised by the relatively swift and arguably historic response to the Puntamba strike call when dozens of farmer protests before had made little impact on the government. But considering the meticulous and methodical preparations that went into making this one unique protest count, Puntamba’s moment of glory does appear well-deserved.
“It was only on 3 April that we discovered that Maharashtra indeed had a functioning agriculture ministry when minister of state for agriculture Sadabhau Khot took immediate note of the strike call. However, Maharashtra’s cabinet minister for agriculture Pandurang Phundkar has been completely absent from the scene,” Jadhav says.
Jadhav calls Puntamba a “grown-up village”. That’s not off the mark. The village has a population of around 22,000 and just one branch of the public sector Bank of Maharashtra that caters to it and 15 smaller villages in the vicinity. It is the largest so-called “revenue” village (an administrative region) in Ahmednagar district. Farmers in Puntamba, 256 km from Mumbai, mostly grow sugarcane, onions, pomegranate, soya bean, wheat, and rear Holstein-Friesian cross-bred cows.
“None of these crops have been getting remunerative prices and the last three-four years have been particularly loss-making. Rearing cows has become unviable because the price that the milk cooperatives pay as determined by the government has been virtually stagnant,” says Dhananjay Jadhav, another member of the core committee. The farmers were angry, he says, and thought a call for a strike “would register our protest.”
On Monday, (Sarjerao) Jadhav is a hero in Puntamba, smeared with gulaal (coloured powder) and surrounded by news channel crews. But on 3 June, as he sat next to chief minister Devendra Fadnavis in Mumbai and announced that “since the government had agreed to accept 70% of the farmers’ demands, the strike was being called off”, he had immediately turned a villain in Puntamba for “betraying the farmers”. “We agreed to end the strike because we felt the situation was getting out of control in some districts. Also, there is a qualitative difference between what we achieved on 3 June and what the steering committee managed to extract on 11 June. We got the government to grant more substantive and concrete concessions,” Jadhav says. He does not grudge the steering committee of farmers and other farm organizations that carried on the strike even after 3 June their “due credit”, though.
To Kisan Kranti core committee must go the credit for sparking off a protest that spread across the state, and beyond.
“On 3 April, when the resolution was passed, we thought we should involve neighbouring villages too since the farmers had similar grievances. Some of our core committee members suggested that we spread this protest all over Maharashtra. But we just had two months to reach other farmers,” Jadhav says. At this point, core committee member Sandip Gidde, who is from Karad near Satara, suggested the use of social media and WhatsApp to spread the word.
“We decided to use both conventional media and social media, and WhatsApp to reach farmers in all districts of Maharashtra,” Gidde says.
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Once Agrovan, a newspaper of the Sakal group, dedicated to the farming business, published the story about the strike, other newspapers and news channels picked it up. Marathi news channels, in particular, camped in Puntamba to relay the protest live. Other parties, including the Shiv Sena, lent their support. Even trade unions, agriculture produce marketing committee employees’ unions, and other established farm organizations such as the Shetkari Sanghatana and Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana came on board. “It soon became a movement and now it has triggered protests in several other states. We feel satisfied by this unique demonstration of farmers’ unity and empathy for each other,” Dhananjay Jadhav says.
This is the first part of Mint’s series, Fractured Farms - II that will capture the ongoing agrarian crisis in the country through a mix of on-ground reports, opinion pieces, and data analyses. It follows Fractured Farms, a similar series Mint ran in 2015.