On a cold November night, Muhammad Ilyash was one of the 250 men and women from Bihar’s Muzaffarpur Junction to board the unreserved compartment of a Delhi-bound train. While there wasn’t even an inch available, to even squat on the floor, Ilyash told his fellows it was worth the crunch. A few stops later, the cops lathicharged them for overcrowding the unreserved compartments and not buying sufficient tickets. They got off and switched two more trains. At the break of dawn on November 20, over 24 hours later, they reached New Delhi. “We arrived like goods, piled on top of one another. But now we’re here,” he says, feeling emboldened to be one among over 40,000 farmers at the Kisan Mukti Sansad, a rally organised by 184 farmer organisations that brought farmers from 25 States to the Capital’s parliament street.

Ilyash, a father of four, is the Muzaffarpur district secretary of the All India Kisan Mazdoor Sabha (AIKMS). When floods hit Bihar six months ago, the water submerged his four kattas of land (7,200 sq ft) destroying the crops of wheat, rice, vegetables and pulses he had sown. Because the soil is still unsuitable for cultivation, Ilyash has moved to a less-affected area, farming on other people’s farms. And he is still awaiting the ₹6,000 the State government had promised as compensation to each affected family.

“Three-fourths of those who have come here from Muzaffarpur are flood refugees like me. From farmers we have become farm labourers,” he says, alleging that the government drew the list of affected families based on the 2011 population census, thereby excluding nearly a third of the families, such as his.

Ilyash’s travel companion Dulari Devi, her mother and a son in tow, recalls the horror of the floodwater swallowing her house. The family waded through muddy waters to reach the railway station, on the platforms of which they have since lived for several months.

The floods stripped many of them of even the fig leaf of dignity. “Farmers have for long been crushed between low returns for their produce and seed companies which thrust high-yielding varieties at triple the price, thereby escalating our production cost. In all of this our land is losing its inherent strength, needing more and more fertilisers to produce less than ever before,” says Ilyash, already ₹1.5 lakh in debt.

The AIKMS is demanding an increase in the minimum support price (MSP) to 1.5 times its present rate, crop loan waivers and better water management, which, it believes, could use more native wisdom. AIKMS general secretary Shambhu Prasad Singh is a farmer who studied MCom and later pursued a Bachelor’s degree in law when he realised that justice and human rights had few crusaders in Darbhanga, his hometown. Singh believes that the culture of building embankments has increased the incidence of floods in recent times.

“There is no system of a barrage in our areas. Barrages help collect water in small quantities, acting as the first safeguard against floods. These should be linked to a network of canals, which help collect large amounts of water and channel it to drought areas. We are only making bunds and embankments, which are the cause of our ruin today,” he says, willing to share his expertise in water resource management for policymakers to consider. In a nutshell, Singh is advocating for a blueprint that developed countries such as Singapore use extensively to prevent flooding. And the Sansad is providing him the platform to air his ideas.

Left behind

Saraswati Keshav Kadam’s husband, Kishore, had attempted suicide twice by swallowing poison and was saved both times. On his third attempt, he was determined to leave nothing to chance. He was already over a lakh rupees in debt and his three acres were being grabbed by a family member, leaving him to attend proceedings at Nanded court that held out little hope for him. Kishore also had two daughters awaiting marriage. Minutes before the court opened for the day to hear his case for the umpteenth time, the woebegone farmer climbed the only tree inside the premises using a fat rope, calmly tied a noose around his neck and jumped to death.

“He was crushed and didn’t want to continue living this way. I now have three children to look after,” says Saraswati, who is one among the 35 widows from Nanded who travelled to the Sansad under the banner of Shetkari Sanghatana, a Maharashtra farmer’s organisation. One woman from Latur recounts how her daughter committed suicide as they didn’t have enough money for her dowry and wedding expenses.

Also from Nanded are Bhagyashree and Rajyalakshmi, who have been forced to work as farmhands after their spouses took their own lives some months ago. Their lands lie untended. The widows, keen on having the security of a job in the village anganwadi, complain that the eligibility criteria (Std X pass certificate) is a hurdle. “How do we become anganwadi workers? The big people have taken that from us as well,” says Rajyalakshmi. “Why is a Std X certificate required to sweep the floors of a room?”

Seated opposite them are Telangana farmer widows, their hands clutching laminated pictures of deceased husbands. Despite repeated letters to the collectors, the compensation promised hasn’t reached them. Meanwhile money is being borrowed to get their kids to study in private schools so that they don’t face their parents’ fate. Data from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) shows that between 1995 and 2015, about 321,428 farmers and agricultural labourers committed suicide across India with just five states — Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Karnataka — accounting for nearly 60 per cent of the deaths.

Weeding out distress

Goutam Bera, from Kanthikontai in Bengal’s Purba Medinipur district, was at the Sansad as a representative of Dakshinbanga Matsyajibi Forum (DMF), an organisation for fishermen’s welfare. Bera is worried that the profession his family has practised for generations may have suddenly become unsustainable. “There are so many rules now: you can’t dry your fish on the shore because the government wants to take it away for tourism. Big trawlers go into the sea for shrimp, and the small fishermen are left with nothing. They release their toxic waste into the sea, and kill the fish that exist. There is no protection for the smaller fishermen and their livelihoods,” says Soumen Ray, a DMF representative.

Tarsem Jodha, a farmer from Ludhiana owning around two acres, puts his finger on what ails Punjab’s farm sector. “With the heavy use of insecticides and pesticides for so many years, the land has lost fertility. Even if we get a proper yield, it is difficult to get a good price for the product, since the government doesn’t stand by its MSP, and private parties pay much below that,” says Jodha. Sukhvinder Singh, 55, and Manjinder Singh, 53, from Tarantal, add, “The drug problem in Punjab’s youth is linked to unemployment. With farming becoming unviable, they can’t turn to other professions for sustenance. They turn to drug abuse instead.” Kisan Lal, who had come from Chittor, Rajasthan, wants his farming lands back. He belongs to a family of opium farmers, but Lal’s opium licence was cancelled when, in 2014, he didn’t meet the minimum yield mark. He blames this on bad weather.

“Why hasn’t the government taken up the recommendations of the Swaminathan report?” asks a farmer from Telangana. Tenant farmers in the region were driven to suicide after successive droughts crushed them under debt. The committee, which looked into the causes for farmer suicides, pinned the blame on the agrarian crisis resulting from unfinished land reforms, the quantity and quality of resources such as water and seeds, technology fatigue, timelines of institutional credit and lack of opportunities for remunerative marketing. The entry of BT cotton seems to have added to the turmoil, with the farmers unsure of the fate of the produce if the government refuses to buy.

R Perumal, one of the leading voices from the Tamil Farmers Association — the organisation that made headlines earlier this year for its 141-day-long protest in New Delhi’s Jantar Mantar — said, “In 1970, a quintal of paddy would cost ₹50, and a bank manager’s salary was ₹250 per month. Now, the manager’s salary has gone up to a lakh but you only get ₹900 for a quintal of paddy. How is this fair?”

The Sansad hopes to present its concerns in the form of a private member’s bill through a member of parliament.

In the background, a sea of people raise their flags and sing the 1960’s cult classic ‘Mere desh ki dharti’. It underscores the glaring ways in which the ground has shifted more than 50 years later. Equally evident is the absence of any political party clamouring to own this group of protesters or promise them protection. New Delhi has seemingly forsaken the people who put food on its plates and this is the moment of reckoning for these farmers and their kin.

They shout, “Na Yogi, na Modi, na Jai Shree Ram, desh par raj karega mazdoor kisan (neither Yogi, Modi, nor Ram, it’s the peasant who will rule this country).” As representatives from Karnataka take to the stage to announce, “Aatmahatya hal na hai, eka hal hai (suicide is not the solution, coming together is),” one realises the actual purpose of the Sansad — that in this carnival of horrors, there is the comfort of knowing they aren’t the only ones. In suffering and betrayal, they have found unity and hope.