Around 10,000 hectares of land, most of it homestead and farms, is being acquired for the Mumbai-Nagpur Samruddhi Expressway, to bring “prosperity” to the poorer regions of eastern Maharashtra. But the agitating farmers in Nashik are sceptical about the promised prosperity.
“I grew 25 trucks full of onions this season. But my farmland will be taken away to build the Samruddhi Expressway. I will lose everything,” says Ananda Kalunge, one of the 3,000 farmers in Nashik whose farmlands are set to be acquired by the government under the Mumbai-Nagpur Samruddhi Expressway Project.
At a projected cost of Rs 46,000 crore, the expressway is being touted as ‘a logistical, industrial, tourism, and communication corridor that would trigger economic and industrial opportunities’ for the poorer districts of eastern Maharashtra.
Maharashtra has seen over 700 farmers committed suicide since January this year. The worst hit are the regions of Vidarbha and Marathwada — the poorer districts that the expressway seeks to connect to the more prosperous regions of the state. Since the beginning of June, farmers across the state have been agitating with a list of demands from the government — farm loan waivers, minimum price guarantee for produce, free provisions for electricity and irrigation are some of their major demands. The agitations have often taken a violent turn, and truckloads of produce have been dumped by the farmers in a show of protest. To pacify the farmers, Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis has announced the ‘biggest farm loan waiver’ even as farmers, particularly in the districts of Nashik and Kolhapur continue their agitation.
The farmers’ discontent has been simmering across the state for a while. On the one hand, three consecutive droughts in Maharashtra led to massive crop failures and forced farmers to borrow heavily, under severely exploitative terms from informal money lenders. The process was further exacerbated by the government’s move to ‘demonitise’ the cash economy in November 2016. The farmers couldn’t plant crops at the right time due to the shortage of cash. The farmers of Nashik, generally a prosperous lot, with larger land holdings and cultivating some of the most commercially viable crops, were also affected. In April, a grape farmer from the district committed suicide. Nashik is the largest producer of onions in the country and exports large amounts of both grapes and onions to Europe. As of February, onion prices had dropped to Re 1 per kilogramme.
Added to these woes came to the bid by the government to forcibly acquire land, from 353 villages in Nashik district for the Samruddhi Expressway. Raju Deshle, president of the Shetkari Sangathan, a local farmers’ association informed community correspondent Maya Khodve that of these, 70 villages are inhabited by adivasis. This is a violation of the traditional land rights guaranteed to the indigenous people under the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act (PESA 1996) which mandates that local gram sabha need to approve of any project that involves land acquisition. The government is using the Land Acquisition Act of 2013 which offers compensation for the land acquired. Land being acquired in Nashik produce multiple crops and some are orchards producing grapes and pomegranates. As Deshle points out, under the provision of the Act, land that produces two crops or orchards, requires 70 percent of the farmers to consent before acquisition can proceed.
Not only is the government violating multiple legal provision, it is also bulldozing an entire way of life and livelihoods in the name of “prosperity”. Neeta Pawar has tears in her eyes as she recounts her struggle to build her house. “I don’t have much land, I bought three thousand square feet of land to build my house. And now I am going to lose both my house and my farm. We work hard the whole day and spend the night in sorrow,” she says. In her neighbouring village, Kalunge adds, “The officials told me this Samruddhi (prosperity) Expressway is the chief minister’s dream project. I am very sad, he seeks to fulfill his dreams by crushing ours.”
What, indeed, is the kind of prosperity that the Expressway, touted as ‘one of India’s biggest public infrastructure projects’, is promising? Government officials have cited the example of Mumbai-Pune Expressway as new opportunities for employment creation. Radhesham Mopalwar, vice-chairman and managing director of Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation, has cited industrial and IT hubs along the Pune Expressway as the kind of development the government is envisioning for Marathwada and Vidarbha replacing farming as a livelihood option.But how does the government expect farmers to get employment in IT industry exactly? Or are the farmers entirely dispensable in the scheme of bringing prosperity to the region?
Kachru Patil, a farmer from Igatpuri in Nashik points out that the new expressway is only shorter by 3 kilometres in comparison with the existing road. Why does the government need to acquire thousands of hectares of land, destroying so many livelihoods for that? “No one wants to listen to us farmers. The government should think before it crosses all limits of injustice,” Patil adds.
The farmers’ agitation saw top dailies and the social media aflame with debates about food wastage as vegetable and milk prices skyrocketed in urban areas following the farmers’ refusal to sell their produce. How, then, can the government be so shortsighted to treat the primary food producers with so much disdain? In the name of bringing “prosperity,” the government is destroying food security in the region, paving the way for yet more farmer suicides. The continued and forcible impoverishment of farmers in Maharashtra is no way to usher in prosperity. The farmers in Nashik are continuing their agitation, but will the urban middle classes think beyond the price of their daily vegetables and join in their fight for justice?
This article, written by Madhura Chakraborty is co-published with FirstPost.