Thousands of farmers, who began a march from Nashik to Mumbai on Thursday morning, called off their protest late at night after the state government promised to meet their demands, set deadlines to do so and hold review meetings every two months to track the progress.
The farmers started walking at 9.30am from Nashik, and camped in an open ground in the Ambe Bahula village, 15km from where they started off, around 3.30pm.
Till late on Thursday, the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS) — the farmers’ group leading the protest — was in talks with the state’s water resources minister, Girish Mahajan, over demands including better relief for those hit by drought, revision of the state’s river-linking agreement with Gujarat, and a pension scheme among other things.
After a five-hour meeting, Mahajan promised timebound solutions to the farmers’ demands.
The government said one of the main demands — the handing over land under the forest department to farmers — will be fulfilled in one to three months.
“We have persuaded the Kisan Sabha members to call off the march. Their demands will be met in a timely manner, and a review meeting between the government and the Kisan Sabha leaders will take place every two months,” Mahajan said after the meeting.
The state government has been trying to defuse the agitation since Wednesday night. Chief minister Devendra Fadnavis sent Mahajan with instructions to work out a solution with the farmers before they begin their march.
Government officials close to the development said the decision was taken with an eye on the summer’s Lok Sabha elections, followed by the Assembly polls later this year.
However, this first round of talks failed as the farmers wanted the chief minister to give them a written assurance that he will fulfil demands, with definite timelines. When the farmers stopped for lunch at 3.30 pm, Mahajan rushed to the village and started another round of talks with AIKS leaders.
AIKS president Ashok Dhawale said, “Most of our demands — 15 in all — have been met, and with improvements. Ten of these demands were given a deadline, for example, the government said the Forest Rights Act will be implemented in three months. They also agreed to maintain a constant dialogue with AIKS leaders.”
GP Gavit, MLA, said, “We were gathered here ready to march to Mumbai. We are now calling off the march, on the condition that a review meeting will be held every two months. It is not sufficient for our demands to be admitted on paper, they must be implemented.”
Tens of thousands of farmers participated in a similar march in March 2018. They reached Mumbai, but withdrew their protest after the government promised to fulfil their demands. On Thursday, several farmers said they returned to protest because they felt cheated.
Among the demands this time was a revision of a river-linking agreement to ensure water is not diverted to Gujarat. The AIKS said its focus was specifically on this demand, as the river-linking agreement was partial to Gujarat at the cost of farmers in Maharashtra.
On February 26, a power point presentation will be made by Maharashtra government to leaders of AIKS, regarding the water-sharing deal between Maharashtra and Gujarat. Gavit said, “We have been told that after the presentation, we will realise that no water from Maharashtra’s rivers is being shared with Gujarat.”
The farmers had also demanded the implementation of the Swaminathan Commission recommendations, the transfer of forest land to tribals, and a complete loan waiver to drought-hit farmers.
“If our demands are not met this time, the rest of our village has also decided to march to Mumbai, with all their cattle, children and household belongings, to pressurise the government,” Yasin Makandar, 55, a farmer from the Mandrup village in south Solapur said earlier in the day. Makandar was among 45 others who travelled from his village to participate in the march.
Lilabai Wagh, 65, who cultivates forest land in the Dhindori village near Nashik, said she is marching in memory of her friend Tanubai Jadhav. “Last time I marched to Mumbai, Tanubai was part of our group, but she died from fatigue two days after we returned. This time our entire village has sworn not to return until all our demands are met,” Wagh said.
The march was supposed to start on Wednesday, but got postponed by a day after the police detained vehicles carrying the farmers in places like Palghar, Kasara, Dahanu and Jawhar. The Nashik police had also denied them permission for the march, only allowing a meeting at the venue. However, the farmers went ahead with the march saying they were exercising their democratic rights to protest.