It was the largest peasant agitation led by the AIKS in Maharashtra in recent years. For two weeks beginning Republic Day on January 26, 2011 up to February 8, the Maharashtra Rajya Kisan Sabha, affiliated to the AIKS, led a massive statewide Jail Bharo and Rasta Roko stir on burning agrarian issues, in which around one lakh peasants participated in strength. The call for this stir was given in the 7,000-strong statewide AIKS rally on the Nagpur state assembly on December 15, 2010. Earlier, from November 15 to 18, over 40,000 peasants under AIKS leadership had held district and tehsil level rallies on the same demands.
VITAL AGRARIAN ISSUES
The prominent agrarian issues that were taken up in this struggle were: peasant suicides due to indebtedness, compensation to crops destroyed due to excessive and unseasonal rainfall, remunerative prices to all crops based on their cost of production, provision of credit to the peasantry at cheap rates, lowering of costs of agricultural inputs, the load shedding and excessive bills of electricity, inclusion of poor peasants and agricultural workers in the Below Poverty Line (BPL) lists, universalisation of the Public Distribution System (PDS) and expansion of the Doorstep Ration Scheme, vesting of temple lands and pasture lands in the names of the cultivating peasants, opposition to the proposed Jaitapur nuclear plant and the Maharashtra SEZ Bill, a comprehensive crop insurance scheme and completion on a war footing of long-pending irrigation projects with proper rehabilitation.
Space does not permit an analysis of the above burning agrarian issues in Maharashtra. Suffice it to say that as per the reports of the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) of the Union Home Ministry, Maharashtra holds the shameful record of having the largest number (41,000-odd) of peasant suicides out of the nearly 2.5 lakh peasant suicides in the country over the last 15 years. This is a clear result of the neo-liberal and anti-peasant policies of successive Congress-NCP and BJP-Shiv Sena regimes in the state and at the Centre. For the last seven years, the Union Agriculture and Food minister has been the NCP supremo Sharad Pawar, who himself hails from Maharashtra! All that he has been interested is the interest of the sugar lobby, IPL cricket and the building of cities for the rich like Lavasa!
Although thousands of peasants were mobilised around the above vital agrarian issues in several districts, the main chunk of participation in this Jail Bharo stir was on the question of the scandalous implementation of the Forest Rights Act (FRA) in Maharashtra. This issue had come to a head in recent weeks with the downright rejection by the state government machinery of thousands of FRA applications of Adivasi peasants in many districts.
As per the status report as on December 31, 2010 on FRA implementation issued by the Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs, a total of 3,35,701 individual FRA claims were filed in Maharashtra. Of these, the FRA village committees recommended 2,82,115 claims to the SDO level committees. Of these the SDO level committees cleared only 1,15,914 claims and sent them to the district level committees. Of these again, 1,04,344 claims were accepted and official certificates (but not actual land rights under the revenue department) were given. Of the 3,988 community FRA claims, only 423 were accepted.
This means that the SDO level committees rejected as many as 1,66,201 FRA individual claims and 3,565 FRA community claims. Even so far as the accepted claims were concerned, certificates granting much less land than that being actually cultivated and claimed by the Adivasis were given. So far as the non-Adivasi traditional forest dwellers were concerned, the draconian requirement of a 75-year (three generations) proof smuggled into the FRA at the last moment dashed their chances of getting any land rights.
One of the main reasons for such en masse rejections of FRA claims has been the illegal and unwarranted interference by the Forest Department, which has been allowed to run amok by the state government and the bureaucracy. Fully aware of the historical antagonism of the Forest Department towards tribals for generations together, the FRA had clearly kept the Forest Department out of the FRA implementation process and had made the Tribal Affairs Department the main nodal agency for FRA implementation.
But on July 18, 2008, the Chief Forest Conservator of Maharashtra State based at Nagpur, issued a 10-page circular laying down the mode of implementation of the FRA in the state. Many of its points flagrantly violated the FRA and its Rules. For nearly two years this circular stayed in force and it was blatantly used to veto thousands of genuine FRA claims.
It was only 20 months later on April 8, 2010, that a state level meeting of the FRA supervisory committee chaired by the then chief secretary, issued another circular generally stating that all circulars and directives of the Forest or any other Department that ran counter to the decisions of that meeting should be considered null and void. But by that time the damage had already been done. However, this same April 2010 meeting committed another blunder. It directed that all pending FRA claims should be disposed off in two months, by May 2010. The result was that the local bureaucracy hastily rushed through the verification process, and “disposed off” the pending claims by rejecting them outright!
The worst aspect of this whole process was that organisations actually working among the Adivasi masses were never taken into confidence at any stage of the FRA implementation. Had that been done, many of these pitfalls could have been averted. But for this, political will - like that shown by the Left Front governments – was required. And it was precisely this political will that was in short supply among the ruling clique in Maharashtra.
MILITANT MASS STRUGGLE
The largest and most militant mass struggle took place in Nashik district, in which over 60,000 peasants courted arrest. In this district, as many as 34,000 of the 51,000 FRA claims had been summarily rejected and this resulted in a mass uproar. The Jail Bharo stir began here on January 26 with over 15,000 Adivasi peasants from Surgana tehsil coming all the way from a distance of over 100 Km to court arrest in Nashik city. Subsequently, there were similar court arrest agitations every day up to February 7 in nine different tehsils.
When the first talks with the state government broke down on February 3, the stir in Nashik district was intensified to block highways. At Karanjali in Peth tehsil, over 4,000 peasants blocked the Nashik-Dharampur (Gujarat) highway for 50 hours at a stretch! The Mumbai-Agra national highway was blocked in Chandwad tehsil, and other highways were blocked by thousands of peasants in Surgana and Tryambakeshwar tehsils till February 7.
In Thane district, as a result of earlier huge mass actions on the FRA and other issues, the administration had not yet dared to reject FRA claims wholesale. Even so, over 25,000 peasants from ten tehsils in Thane district courted arrest on January 31, and it was decided to block all highways if the talks with the state government broke down again on February 7.
In Ahmednagar district, the most militant action in this stir took place at Akole on January 29. Here 526 peasants, including 47 women, refused to accept bail and they spent 11 days in four different jails at Kolhapur, Aurangabad, Pune and Nashik. They were led by Dr Ajit Nawale, Eknath Mengal, Raju Gambhire, Namdev Bhangre and others. Another big rally was held in Akole on February 3 to express solidarity with the comrades who were in jail.
In Nandurbar district, over 3,500 peasants and agricultural workers took part in rallies. Around 1,000 to 2,000 peasants each courted arrest in districts like Nanded, Yavatmal, Parbhani, Kolhapur and Pune. The stir was also carried out in districts like Beed, Solapur, Sangli, Buldana, Raigad and Hingoli. In many of these districts, other issues were taken up.
It was as a result of this statewide struggle, especially the widespread and militant peasant actions in Nashik, Thane and Ahmednagar districts, that the State Home Minister R R Patil invited an AIKS delegation to hold talks in Mumbai on February 7. He was accompanied by the Tribal Development Minister, the State Chief Secretary, Tribal Development Secretary and other senior officials. The AIKS was represented by its leaders J P Gavit, ex-MLA, Rajaram Ozare, MLA, Lahanu Kom, ex-MP, Kisan Gujar, Irfan Shaikh and Hemant Waghere.
In this meeting the state government agreed as follows: 1) All the rejected FRA claims will be reviewed and all those who have submitted any two proofs as per the FRA will be accepted; 2) Forest land up to the FRA limit of 4 hectares (10 acres) will be given to claimants who have it in their possession; 3) Appeals against rejected claims will be accepted even if they are submitted after the 60 day limit; 4) The unwarranted interference by the Forest Department will be stopped; 5) All police cases lodged in the course of this agitation will be withdrawn and all arrested peasants will be released.
The next day, February 8, there was an unprecedented 50,000-strong districtwide rally held by the AIKS at Kalwan in Nashik district to announce the results of the talks with the government and to convey the future line of action. Kalwan town had no ground in which to accommodate so many people, so the public meeting was held on the main road itself. Peasants sat on the road over a distance of over one kilometre to listen to the meeting.
The massive Kalwan rally was addressed by AIKS state president J P Gavit, ex-MLA, state vice presidents Dr Ashok Dhawale and Gunaji Gavit, state general secretary Kisan Gujar, state joint secretary Laxman Gaikwad and state council members Irfan Shaikh and Hemant Waghere. It was also addressed by CITU state general secretary Dr D L Karad, AIDWA state vice president Mariam Dhawale and DYFI leader Hemant Patil. It was presided over by AIKS leader Balasaheb Gangurde. The atmosphere at the rally was one of determination to ensure that the state government pledges are actually implemented. If this was not done, it was vowed that the struggle would be resumed and further intensified.