Most leaders in the unorganised sector of agriculture are self-proclaimed, but there was one — an undisputed source of inspiration for farmers of Maharashtra in particular and rest of the country in general — in late Sharad Joshi. The firebrand, who breathed his last on Saturday, gave distressed peasants an opportunity to live a respectful life; he wanted to ensure that farmers were not left holding a begging bowl before successive governments.
Generations of our farmers have been facing agrarian crises. The situation in Maharashtra is much more serious because thousands of lives have been claimed in the past decade. Indebted farmers are committing suicide even now. Debates in the legislature have failed to find a permanent solution. And farmers don’t have a leader as learned as the late Joshi to fight for their cause. Joshi’s disciples, who broke away from his Shetkari Sanghatana many years ago, are not as effective despite being part of the ruling alliance.
Joshi’s argument that he first tabled in 1978 that farmers must get a remunerative compensation for their produce — the method manufacturers follow in pricing their products — still remains on paper. He said that a mere increase in agricultural production does not improve the wealth of farmers, but it is better market prices that make farming sustainable. The argument made Joshi the peasants’ champion. The successful agitations that he led unsettled successive governments in the state.
The former Indian Postal Service officer, who pioneered pin code system in India, returned to the country in 1976, after quitting a lucrative job in the Switzerland office of the United Nations. He bought a rain-fed farmland in Ambethan near Pune where he experimented with modern technology. But very soon he realised that his new avocation was just unprofitable. The very sense of financial loss inspired him to devise a theory that had economics as the main basis of sustainable farming. His effort gathered momentum and spread across the state. Joshi was sought by other states as well because of his clarity of thought and the impact his appeals made. Unnerved policymakers, who had industry and manufacturers in mind whenever it came to controlling prices of raw material, did not take notice of Joshi’s arguments. Nothing has changed even now.
What stopped governments from responding to Joshi’s demands was that he did not seek any concession for farmers, but wanted better market prices for their produce. The demand, if fulfilled, would upset consumers, who cry foul when onion prices are sold at Rs 60-80 per kg, but are happy in spending more on buying manufactured goods. No political party (previous and current) would have the political will to take this risk of jacking up agricultural food prices. Joshi continued to blame governments for causing the fall in vegetable, grain and oilseed prices (and other produce).
A remarkable organising skill that no other leader is associated with came to the fore when Joshi gathered more than 2 lakh women in Chandvad near Nashik. The farmers’ spouses, daughters, sisters and mothers had carried food for the two days because the organisers did not have resources to provide refreshments to the guests. It was Joshi’s appeal that made farmers share their landholding legally with their wives and daughters. Political historians do not recall any such incident that may have happened after this event. It was a liberating experience for women, some of whom later became legislators and got elected to local self-governments.
Joshi broke his resolve of keeping away from politics. He floated the Swatantra Bharat Paksha, and got some legislators elected, but he did not win any election. The reason he gave this columnist while explaining his defeat summed up this master of realpolitik. “They wanted a representative of their caste/community, not a Brahmin like me. It did not make any difference that I led their fight for justice,” he told me.
The leader would never agree when asked if joining politics was a big mistake. But he did agree that it was the politicians who were responsible for destroying his well-oiled movement.
Dharmendra Jore is political editor, mid-day. He tweets @dharmendrajore. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org