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Rediff.com  » News » 4 hours, 8 km: Marching with farmers left me heartbroken

4 hours, 8 km: Marching with farmers left me heartbroken

Last updated on: March 12, 2018 17:36 IST

As thousands of protesting farmers marched into Mumbai on Sunday, Hemant Waje walked along with them. This is his account.

IMAGE: A sea of red on the way to Mumbai on Sunday. 

The six-day-long march of 30,000 farmers and adivasis from Nashik to Mumbai is at its fag end on Sunday. 

The farmers, all from Maharashtra, are about to enter Mumbai from the city's eastern suburb -- Mulund, where I live.

 

I join the march at this point, deciding to walk along for as long as I can, in their footwear, so to speak.

At the head of the column is a lead vehicle, a tempo with loudspeakers to keep the rank and file of the marching farmers informed of changes, if any. 

At around 3 pm, the column makes the symbolic crossover from Thane into Mumbai by crossing the Mulund toll naka.

IMAGE: Mumbaiites generally don't stop for anyone. But the sight of thousands of farmers made them stop and take note of their protest.

It’s a scorching 34 C and I’m wearing comfortable shoes, walking shoulder to shoulder with farmers in broken chappals, some barefoot, in a strange silence, despite the numbers.

They are in their thousands -- farmers and adivasis -- marching as one towards the state legislative assembly at the southern end of the city, demanding complete loan waiver, implementation of Swaminathan Commission report including remunerative price for crops, transfer of forest land which they have been cultivating for generations and in some cases even renewal of ration cards. 

We are walking on the service road of the Eastern Express Highway, to ensure there is minimal traffic disruption. 

I tell them that Mumbaikars fear that the farmers may bring disorder in the city. 

“Can't you put up with us for just one day?" Sadhuram Rathod asks plaintively. 

He has come with hundreds of people from his village in Surgana tehsil of Nashik. "I don't own a single piece of land, nor can I make any changes on the land which is owned by the forest department," he explains.

IMAGE: Banners like this were a common sight.  

At the Mulund-Airoli junction, I am surprised to see members of the local Shiv Sena unit greeting the farmers with water and biscuits. 

For the Shiv Sena, despite all the sabre-rattling, is still part of the Maharashtra government, and here are its members backing the agitation by the All India Kisan Sabha, affiliated to the Communist Party of India-Marxist, which is opposed to the state government. 

The farmers drink their water, accept the biscuit packets in silence, and walk on silently. No sloganeering, no camaraderie. 

We have walked a few kilometres by then, and my spirits begin to wilt in the soaring temperature. 

The farmers, wearing red caps and waving hammer and sickle flags, simply keep walking. Tireless, it seems. 

Even though summer is yet to set in, the city has been reeling under unusually high temperatures. "We don't feel the heat when we are working in the field, but now that we are walking, we can feel it," Sangeeta Shinde says. 

Passing motorists slow down to see what the fuss was all about, whip out their mobile phones, take pictures and drive on. Thankfully, no one attempted a selfie.

The silence of the marchers are broken with slogans: 'ladenge, jeetenge' (we will fight and win); some protesters play the dhol and a shehnai-like instrument to cheer up their tired companions.

And some even break into an impromptu tribal jig.

IMAGE: Many political parties lent their support to the farmers' long march. 

Just as we cross Bhandup, an Opposition leader pays a "customary visit", even giving a 'lal salaam' to the farmers. His party and his party leader, who was a Union minister in the previous government, were with them, he said. 

Why didn't his party do anything to solve the farmers' problems, I wanted to ask him.

But he is not the only one to turn up in support. Along the way, almost at every traffic junction, several political leaders, turn up. In some places, the farmers even get a celebrity-like welcome -- flower petals are showered on them as they walk by. 

The marchers are old; the marchers are young, and almost all have swollen feet after walking from Nashik. But they are determined to reach the state assembly on Monday.

Sixty-year-old Sadu Mahale, who shows a fierce determination to march on, adds: "I toil in the field day and night but the land belongs to the government. At least my next generation will get the fruits of this march.”

There is a fair share of women, too, in the protest march. Sangeeta Shinde, Mathurabai Shinde and Suneeta Gangurde are walking along with other farmers from her village in Nashik.

Mathurabai said that one member from each family in their village has joined this march.

Her husband and the men of the village have stayed home. "If he had come, then who will do the work and earn money? Who will feed us then?" she asked in a display of indisputable logic.

Suneeta Gangurde complains that they work on forest land which they don't own. She also demands that they be given ration cards.

IMAGE: Pundalik Choudhari (holding a stick), rests on the side of the Eastern Express Highway with his fellow protesters.

Pundalik Choudhari, who is in his late 30s, says that even after the government increased the minimum support price, middlemen don't pass on the benefit to them.

"The government will not listen to us. We hope they listen to the media and fulfill our demands."

Many volunteers and supporting groups have set up stalls near Vikhroli to provide water and poha to the farmers.

The farmers quietly eat the flattened rice, some pack it for later, and walk on towards their final destination -- the Maharashtra assembly.

As the farmers walk on stoically, I’ve had enough. 

I have walked eight kilometres in four hours with them and I can walk no more.

I am ashamed. 

As I leave them, a volunteer who is collecting the trash tells me, "Jin haatho ne hume khana diya, un haath ko dekh kar aankho mein paani bhar aaya (the plight of those who feed us moves us to tears)." 

I couldn't have agreed more.

I reach home, have a long, cold shower, and glug two glasses of watermelon juice. 

The farmers were walking on. 

There has been not a single incident of violence in the six days they have marched the 180 kilometres to Mumbai. 

There has been little traffic disruption; just a sea of red flags, marching together in solidarity. 

I hope the government listens in and gives in to their demands. 

It’s time.

WATCH: A sea of red make their way into Mumbai

Video/Photographs: Hemant Waje/Rediff.com.

Hemant Waje / Rediff.com