NAGPUR, Maharashtra—Journalist P. Sainath, whose ground reports have been credited with drawing national attention to the country's agrarian crisis, has been travelling across India for the past few weeks, mobilising support for a farmers' march to Delhi later this week.
Over 1 lakh farmers are expected to participate on 29-30 November in the march, which aims to raise issues concerning 70% of India's farmers and agricultural labourers.
Around 200 farmers' groups have given the call for the 'Dilli Chalo' march and are demanding a special Parliament session to discuss farmers' issues.
Sainath, a Ramon Magsaysay award winner, is the founding editor of the People's Archive of Rural India (PARI), a digital journalism platform dedicated to rural India.
The former rural affairs editor of The Hindu says he is a supporter of the march, not an organiser. He is hopeful that, like in the Nashik-Mumbai march earlier this year, where thousands of Mumbaikars came out on the roads to support farmers, the people of Delhi will also stand in solidarity with the protesters.
"It's a wonderful thing if the farmers move from the demoralised mindset of the last 20 years, which leads to suicides, to active protest which leads to the assertion of rights," said Sainath.
He spoke to HuffPost India about the march's aims, the importance of drawing national attention to the plight of farmers and why he is actively participating in the march despite being a journalist.
What is the 'Dilli Chalo' march all about?
The Dilli Chalo Kisan Mukti march is happening on a call given by a federation of farmers' groups. I am not the organiser, it's not my march. I support it. All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee (AIKSCC) is a confederation of 150-200 farm groups, some of them very small, some of them very big. They have given a call for a march on parliament on 29 and 30th (of November). The sole idea came up after the Nashik-Mumbai march where 40,000 Adivasi farmers came (to Mumbai) and were joined by 10,000 people from Mumbai earlier this year. None of the major issues of farmers have been looked at by the Parliament in a systematic way. The first report of the Swaminathan Commission was submitted in December 2004. The last was submitted in October 2006. For 14 years, the National Commission on Farmers' reports have been lying in Parliament without Parliament finding one hour for a discussion. When it comes to the corporate sector and their GST, which is busily destroying thousands of small and medium enterprises, in a week you were able to call and hold a special session at midnight with the President of India and passed it. But in 14 years you could not find the time to discuss the report of the National Commission on Farmers. AIKSCC is focused majorly on two issues. One is a bill they are introducing as a private member bill on minimum support and remunerative prices. The second is freedom from indebtedness bill. But the agrarian crisis is a very large thing, it's not just one or two bills.
I think the Nashik-Mumbai march was a turning point in the way it inspired farmers and people around the country. Since then, there have been 20 marches in different parts of the country. It's a wonderful thing if the farmers move from the demoralized mindset of the last 20 years, which leads to suicides, to active protest which leads to the assertion of rights. I think that is a very good thing that's happening. The idea came and I suggested that you should have a demand that the Parliament should have a three-week special session to discuss exclusively the agrarian crisis and related issues. Since all the powers are concentrated at the hands of the centre anyway, that would place national focus on this issue. It would also be telling your farmers that you are important to us, we are concerned about you. When AIKSCC and others endorsed this idea of a march, several middle-class professionals met in Delhi in August this year. People like Gopal Gandhi, Mrunal Pande came in the first meeting and this formed a very amorphous little platform. It's not a registered organization, it's a forum. It's called 'Nation for Farmers'.
When was the last time people from middle class interacted with the farmers? The great thing about Nashik-Mumbai march was that that started happening. Middle classes started reconnecting. I think this is a very important thing and it goes beyond 29 or 30 November that the farmers and the labourers are returning into public discourse and the middle classes are talking to people from the Anganwadis, people from the farms, to agricultural labourers. It's a good thing for democracy, it's a good thing for equality.
What is the idea behind a 21-day special session of Parliament?
The idea of Nation for Farmers is that you need a three-week minimum special session of Parliament because there are several issues that you have to look at. For three days, you need to have a thorough discussion on the Swaminathan commission reports. A couple of days, you pass those two bills because many political parties have signed on to it saying that they support those bills in principle so they can pass that very easily and fast. Three days, you have a thorough discussion on the credit crisis which is much larger than just one loan waiver. You have a loan waiver and I am for it. But unless you revise the credit system, next year the farmers will be back in the same situation because you have diverted agricultural credit from agriculturist to agribusiness. Less and less money is going in terms of small loans to small and marginal farmers. So, three days you discuss the restricting of the credit crisis which will also mean no privatization of public sector banks. Otherwise, these people will get no credit at all. As it is, they have siphoned off your credit towards the corporate sector. Three days you have a discussion on mega water crisis which is a much bigger crisis than drought. Unfortunately, nothing is being seriously (about it). The water crisis in the country consists of multiple transfers of water, poor to reach, agriculture to industry, food crop to cash crop, village to city and livelihood to lifestyles. You need to have a legislation on if water is a commodity or a fundamental human right and is water be privately owned. There are issues of equity of justice. Water rights in rural areas have to be discussed with particular reference to the rights of the landless, not just the farmer.
Let the victims of the agrarian crisis, the widows of Vidarbha, orphans of Anantpur, for the first time in a historic move, let them stand on the central floor of the Parliament and address Parliament and the nation on what the agrarian crisis is and what it did to them.
Three days you can spend discussing what I think is an issue without engaging with you cannot solve the agrarian crisis: the rights and entitlement, including land rights, of women farmers who do more than 60% of all work in agriculture. Likewise, the land rights of Dalit farmers, who even after being distributed land to, are not getting patta (ownership). 20 years later, the state will grab that land for Adanis or somebody. Then there are poor Adivasi farmers who don't know what the patta system means. Land rights have got to be settled. You can have three days looking at the pending issues of land reform. Three days you need to discuss what sort of agriculture do you want 20 years from now. Corporate-driven, chemical-drenched or community driven and agro-ecological based? You need to seriously and legislatively reverse the decline of public investment in agriculture which has been falling dramatically for years. Public investment has to be restored and raised in agriculture. Three days, let the victims of the agrarian crisis, the widows of Vidarbha, orphans of Anantpur, for the first time in a historic move, let them stand on the central floor of the Parliament and address Parliament and the nation on what the agrarian crisis is and what it did to them. Then you would have an entirely different attitude. A special session of Parliament is what the Nation for Farmers is wanting. It's a middle-class thing, none of us is a farmer. But our point is everybody is connected to the farmers who are in the habit of eating and everybody of us was a villager two generations ago. In that situation, you need this reconnection of middle classes with the primary classes. Dilli Chalo is a website to support this, to draw attention to this. One of the interesting things that have happened is, since the beginning of September, the Nations for Farmers' chapters have sprung up by themselves all over.
These are complex questions. We have a Parliament with very few people with a deep understanding of agriculture. Even if these issues are raised, do you think there will be a genuine discussion?
It's not a question of whether they discuss genuinely or don't discuss genuinely. It's also up to us to make them do it. See, we have an option. Let's say, oh they won't discuss it genuinely in Parliament, let's not go to Parliament, let's not make Parliament work for people. So just leave the Parliament to the corporations and to the ultra-rich. Parliament is a collection of ultra-rich people. Now the point is as a citizen, do you want to assert your rights and make Parliament work for people or do you want to concede Parliament to the corporate world? To sit and work for Jio and GST, digital companies and demonetisation?
What can be more democratic than a demand that the Parliament work for people?
Parliament being good or bad also depends on us as a society and the political movements that come up. My point is this, should I say they are not enforcing my rights, they are not observing my rights, so I give up on my rights. That sounds like dumb politics to me. I say that Parliament ought to be made to work for you... One of the great things of Dilli Chalo action of 29 and 30 November is the beginning of reclaiming your Constitution, reclaiming your parliamentary democracy. What can be more democratic than a demand that the Parliament work for people?
There appears to an ideological splintering among the farmers' groups across the country. Do you think they would be able to reach an understanding in an atmosphere where our politics is becoming more and more sectarian?
Of course there are ideological differences, otherwise there would not be 200 groups, there would be one. That reflects your society also—why are there 30 political parties? It represents the divisions and heterogeneity of your society. So, there are Adivasi farmers for whom MSP (Minimum Support Price) is not the main issue. There are going to be very big differences amongst them. What you should wonder at is that given those differences they are coming together. I don't think this march is a culmination of many things. I think it's a beginning that like in Mumbai the middle classes of Delhi will be talking to farmers. I am just concerned about how do we, as middle-class professionals, make ourselves relevant to the struggles and issues of justice of ordinary people. You are a journalist but you are also a human being and a citizen. So yeah, there will be differences but maybe as you move forward, over the years, many of these differences narrow down as you learn from successive public actions and movements. I don't expect, I will not demand of another person that they will toe my understanding of politics 100%. That's stupid. The thing is whether they can agree on certain basic minimum principles, like the Constitution of India. Can you agree on some basic minimum?
I don't think this march is a culmination of many things. I think it's a beginning that like in Mumbai the middle classes of Delhi will be talking to farmers.
I don't see differences as something to be terrified of. You live in a country which speaks 780 languages and you see one kind of mindset which says end all this and impose Hindi everywhere. That is one attitude towards it. For me, with 780 languages, you are incredibly rich. If you are looking for a monolithic, monochromatic society where 130 crore people are not different from each other, I would hate to live in that world. I would want the diversity. So many differences spring up from where you are from and at. If you are a farmer from Jammu and Kashmir, you have many issues that are different from those of farmers in Bengal. But there are things on which they have come together. How many farmers do you know who oppose Swaminathan Commission report? Wherever you go, they have at least heard of this. How many farmers who are opposing a better MSP? So, there are basics on which you come together and the process is not one short thing. It's not an event. 29-30th is a historic beginning. As you go forward, more and more people come to think about those issues. It took several years for everyone to get on to the Swaminathan Commission idea.
You are a journalist but you are mobilising support for this march. Is this some kind of a plunge into political activism?
No, it's not. I think it is one of the crudest and stupidest understandings. I know there are journalists saying 'Sainath has become an activist now'. I am waiting for that journalist who is saying this to become a journalist first. When will he become a human being? I don't have to defend or display my track record as a journalist. I am a human being. If you are a journalist and remain silent in the face of grave injustice, then you are a third-rate journalist. When it comes to all those journalists who work 365 days in the service of the corporate world who are their owners, you don't see that as activism. Journalism on behalf of people, that you see as an activism. I have nothing but contempt for this (mentality).
I know there are journalists saying 'Sainath has become an activist now'. I am waiting for that journalist who is saying this to become a journalist first.
For me, the views of my peer groups and fellow journalists are exceedingly important and you can ask anyone of 5,000 journalists in the country what they think of me and my journalism. Do I really have to defend myself as a journalist? I am saying that there is a complete zombification of journalists when you are writing everyday something or the other that is plugging the interest of your corporate bosses. These are the fundamental issues of justice. When journalists were attacked, protest rallies were taken, did not people from other sections of the society join it? What you are saying is that 'if it is happening to journalists, everybody should speak up. When it's happening to farmers, who cares?' I am happy to be who I am.