Fadnavis meets with officials as 50,000 farmers converge on Mumbai

Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis has called a meeting of officials on Monday to discuss issues plaguing farmers in Maharashtra, even as tens of thousands of agitating farmers arrived in of Mumbai on Sunday.

Reports put the number of farmers who had marched 180 km from Nashik at 35,000-50,000. Many of them wore red caps and bore flags of the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), a peasant front of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), a key organiser of the march.

Turning the arterial roads of India's financial capital into a sea of red, the farmers' numbers swelled from 35,000 to 50,000 over the day, organisers said. Tomorrow, they plan to gherao the state assembly to press for their demands of a complete loan waiver and and transfer of adivasi land to farmers who have been tilling it. Tribals have joined the protest in huge numbers. The huge crowd has camped at the K J Somaiya Ground, and will start to move towards Azad Maidan in the heart of Mumbai around midnight.

On Sunday evening, as the procession teemed into Mumbai, Girish Mahajan, senior minister in the cabinet of Devendra Fadnavis, welcomed the march at Mulund in suburban Mumbai. "We are sad that farmers have come all the way to protest," he said, adding that the government, which has met some earlier demands, will consider the fresh wish-list.

The opposition Congress, Nationalist Congress Party, the Raj Thackeray-led Maharashtra Navnirman Sena and Shiv Sena, which is part of the ruling alliance, support the farmers' demands. Shiv Sena leader Aditya Thackeray met the farmers today. But the farmers are reportedly not satisfied. They want the Sena to speak as representatives of the government and not as a political party.

In November last year, the Devendra Fadnavis government had announced loan waiver for farmers after the state saw a 10-day long protest by farmers. Without mentioning figures or who would be eligible, he had promised that it would be the "biggest loan waiver in Maharashtra's history". Last month, state Governor Vidyasagar Rao told the state assembly that said the government has transferred more than Rs12,000 crore into bank accounts of more than 3.1 million farmers.

But the farmers also want the implementation of the Swaminathan Committee report, which says farmers should be paid one and a half times the cost of production and the Minimum Support Price should be fixed keeping this in mind.

Sources said the protesters will not be allowed to proceed beyond the Somaiya ground and only a delegation will be allowed to come to the Vidhan Bhavan to meet the Chief Minister. The farmers say the march to the assembly is on, but the AIKS also say they are willing to consider what the government offers.

Ashok Dhawle, president of the AIKS, assured that the protests will not disturb the city. He said, "We will begin our rally after 11 am so that students appearing for their Class 10 board exam don't face any difficulties."

The agitating farmers are also demanding compensation of Rs 40,000 per acre for the destruction of crops due to hailstorm and pink bollworm, allocation of forest land under cultivation to farmers and implementation of Forest Rights Act.

The farmers, who started their journey on 6 March from Nashik, plan to encircle the Vidhan Bhavan, where the Budget session of the state legislature is underway, the organisers said.

Though a Bombay High Court order restricts any protests or marches near the Legislative Assembly House area, the farmers on Sunday seemed determined to carry out their march to the Vidhan Bhavan.

According to IANS, it has been decided that a delegation of farmers, led by Ajit Nawale, general secretary, All India Kisan Sabha, Dr Ashok Dhawale and a dozen other prominent farmers leaders will meet the government after 10 am.

Nawale, however, said that the march to the Vidhan Bhavan remains unchanged despite the planned talks between the govt and the farmers.

The farmers are expected to march through Dadar, Byculla and JJ Flyover to reach CST from where they are expected to march to the Vidhan Bhavan.

The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation stated that it will provide 20 mobile toilets at Azad Maidan, which will be increased at night to 40 toilets. Further, four water tankers will be put in place at the ground. Pay toilets near Azad Maidan and Mantralaya have been instructed to provide free services for two days.

At Somaiyya grounds, the BMC has put in place three water tankers, each with a capacity of 12,000 litres. Further, 120 mobile seats have been hired at the venue. The civic body said that fogging has also been carried out on Saturday to prevent mosquitoes.

With all eyes set on the Fadnavis government, Monday is crucial not just for Nawale and his 30,000 farmers but also for Mumbaikars commuting to work.