It only needed a little provocation, and the simmering discontent brewing among the already harangued Vidarbha cotton growers spilled over in early December.
When an audacious grader of the Cotton Corporation of India (CCI) refused to buy cotton from beleaguered farmers at a procurement centre in Wani, Yavatmal, the patient farmers, clamouring for days and nights at the centre for procurement to commence, erupted in violence and nearly torched the cramped office of the Agriculture Produce Marketing Committee (APMC). Stunned babus summoned police for help, only to turn the situation worse. The next four to six hours saw the town sink into a curfew-like situation, with angry and hungry farmers joined in by locals launching what were spontaneous and unprecedented protests.
A marginal farmer of Mendholi village, Dinesh Ghogul, 38, found his stomach slit open; three bullets pierced his intestine and lay there. He died immediately. A woman, who came out of her nearby house, survived by a whisker. She saw a bullet kissing her hand. By the evening, five farmers were in the hospital, and one had died. Tension and violence had laid siege of Wani, but across Vidarbha, a volcano was waiting to erupt at nearly a hundred cotton procurement centres, where farmers' patience was fading, but the procurement had not commenced.
All that those poor farmers wanted from the government was; cotton should be procured at support prices. Instead, the government replied with bullets.
Criticism and condemnation from all quarters poured in, but a well-ensconced government looked unmoved. As the state's deputy chief minister, R R Patil, who also holds the home portfolio, justified the police action: "Had they not fired in self defence, farmers would have burnt the office of APMC with men in it."
Going by all the eyewitness accounts, police did not give any warning to the protesting farmers before opening fire. And the rifles pointed at the chests, not below the waists. Patil did not mince words about his government's failure in procuring cotton from farmers despite their repeated demand. He made no mention of corruption in procurement. Alas, those were difficult questions.
Ironically, the incident took place when the state legislature's winter session was in the process at Nagpur, barely 135 km from Wani. It was Friday, and the first week of the session had ended, with a fragile opposition failing to raise the issue of cotton farmers in the House and forcing the government to take a note of the explosive situation. By that date, the state government-run Maharashtra State Cooperative Cotton Growers' Marketing Federation had procured only 3 lakh quintals of cotton, as against 50 lakh by private traders at prices much less than the minimum support price of Rs.1990 a quintal. Farmers wanted the federation to procure their cotton at MSP. When it didn't, they sold it to traders out of desperation and in distress.
The Wani incident brought the focus back on the issue. It forced the federation to buy cotton fast and quick. In two days, the procurement figures showed a three-fold rise and the centres were working round the clock. One procurement centre bought close to 20,000 quintals in four days time. Today, the procurement is slow, compelling desperate farmers to wait for days at market yards across the region.
After India adopted the policies of liberalisation in the early 90s, a very high capital global economy got merged with a very low cost local economy.
Since then, the value of the rupee has consistently fallen. Also, the prices of agriculture commodities like cotton have crashed in the past decade, while the cost of living spiraled phenomenally, be it food, health costs or education.
The centre's decision to pay its employees the fifth pay scale was an indication of that - that's why the rise in incomes in lieu of inflation.
Ironically, farm wages remained the same; in fact in some parts they saw a sudden drop due to declining agricultural employment rate. Vidarbha farmers, like farmers of other regions, have bore the brunt of this process as well.
True, this year the farmers got interest waiver. The banks increased the credit flow by including more farmers, but most beneficiaries were under-financed. In order to accommodate more farmers, the cooperative and nationalized banks cut down on the per capita credit disbursement. Private lenders bridged the gap. But while all this is true, there's no addition to a farmer's income; it's in fact dipped.
Across the region, delay in procurement, exploitation by private traders aided by a corrupt system and falling prices are this year's new features of the crisis. Of nearly 17.65 lakh households in the six cotton cultivating districts of western Vidarbha, close to 4.5 lakh are in acute crisis", another 9.5 lakh in "moderate", nearly 3 lakh families have daughters of marriageable age and about a hundred thousand families have terminally ill patients but can't afford health costs. That's what the state government's own door-to-door survey showed in July 2006.
The day Ghogul died, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said in New Delhi that agriculture was his "top priority." Just a day earlier, the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance in the Maharashtra legislative assembly had staged a "mock funeral' to protest the state government's failure to curb the wave of suicides in the region.
Already, in the past two years, Vidarbha has seen at least 2000 farmers commit suicide, out of distress fuelled by rising debts and mounting pressures. From an average one suicide every 24 hours last June (2005 that is), it had come down to an average one per eight hours by this past June (2006). Now it's down to one in every four hours, according to the Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti. Since the Prime Minister's package in July 2006 the figure has crossed 600-mark.
Seen against the backdrop of these horrific figures, the Wani firing looked like an oppressive ploy, akin to any dictatorial regime, to subvert farmers' concern.
Equally clueless seemed a divided Shiv Sena-BJP opposition. Just a day before the incident took place their members took out a mock funeral in the assembly, while three real funerals of farmers, who had taken their own lives, were taking place in Akola, Yavatmal and Amravati. The opposition did not debate it out with the government; instead it dramatised the issue for the media mileage.
Three days after Goghul's death, the state government gave 4 lakh rupees in aid to his inconsolable widow, but refused to own up the responsibility of the firing. There was not even a shred of remorse. On, 15 December, the last day of the legislature's session, the government announced Rs.1500 per hectare aid with a ceiling of two hectares (i.e. Rs.3000) to the cotton farmers. After inflicting wounds in firing, the government's new aid was akin to rubbing salt to injuries. Alas, nothing else!