At Azad Maidan, Mumbai, farmers from across Maharashtra came out to support the Delhi protests with a sit-in organised by the Samyukta Shetkari Kamgar Morcha on January 24-25. Sixteen-year-old Omprakash and 18-year-old Krishna Gupta, residents of Vikhroli and Andheri respectively, in Mumbai, spent time at the protest site to support and document the voices of people they met and to photograph what was happening around them. In doing so they learnt about how our food is produced and a little about the lives of the people who grow it.
When I stepped down from my bus close to Azad Maidan, I heard the loud chanting of slogans: “kaale kanoon ko wapas lo [take back the ‘black’ laws]” and “Adani Ambani hai hai [down with Adani and Ambani]”. I saw a group of protestors carrying red flags and I followed them to the grounds. I was amazed to see that the whole maidan, spread over 25 acres, was filled with farmers and people who had come to support the protest. Till then, all I knew about the farm bills protest was that farmers are sitting outside Delhi in protest.
Before coming to Azad Maidan that day, I knew that farmers sell their crops in the mandi and we buy our food there. I had no idea about the MSP [minimum support price], essential commodities list, etc. I slowly started to realise how distant my friends and I were from an important issue that was affecting thousands of people across the country.
Each time I met people at the maidan over the next two days, I understood a little bit more about the living conditions of farmers in our country.
My family is from Jaunpur district in Uttar Pradesh. We owned around a bigha of land [less than half an acre] in our village Gora Patti in Barsathi block, Jaunpur. A lot of our land had already been sold towards repayment of debts and this is all that is left.
Our family’s income from farming was not enough; they were barely surviving on what they could grow on their land. So, my grandfather came to Mumbai to look for work. He found work here in the mills and my father joined him, finding work in a book printing press. Our family have been here since then.
In school in Mumbai, we learn about farmers and that they grow food for us. In our school books there is only a small mention about them. We learnt about some crops and how they are grown. What are the difficulties they face in cultivation, the conditions they live in, the loans they have to take and so on, is something we don’t learn about, nor did we ever think about. We just think that people living in villages will grow our food.
None of us [students] want to become a farmer. We all have other dreams. If we want to become doctors then we are guided to achieve that, but farming as a future career is not an option given to us.
At Azad Maidan, I met Kanchan who is a graduate and yet she works as a daily wage labourer in others’ farms, earning just Rs. 150-200 for long hours of hard work. I also met a trio of women and I was drawn to their stories. I lost any shyness I might have felt about speaking to strangers. They were all around the age of 60 and were widows. Gaurabai tai told me that she, Manjula tai and Draupadi tai were daily wage labourers working on other people’s fields. They earned enough to live independently.
This was very different from what I had imagined – that widowed women were not allowed to go out alone and that they did not have a normal life after their husbands died. They told me that they were able to take care of themselves financially until the lockdown when work began to dry up.
I could relate to how lockdown affected them because my father is a rickshaw driver and my brother takes tuition classes in our basti [colony]. We rely on their daily earnings and during the lockdown both were out of work.
Farmers at the protest want to be heard so that their children do not have to suffer. If the conditions remain like this, more farmers will be forced to leave agriculture and move out in search of jobs. If farmers leave farming, who will grow our food?
After I went home that day, I told my family about it and my brother was happy that I had met farmers and got to hear about these issues from them.
That day Azad Maidan felt like a small village. I had come to join the farmers’ protest and there were people from all across Maharashtra here. My parents knew that I was going there but they didn’t know what was happening. I was curious to know more. I was surprised that not many people knew about it.
I left my home in Andheri around 10 a.m. and reached the maidan by around 1:30 p.m. There was heavy traffic and busses were hard to find. But I never felt like turning back.
My maternal grandparents were once farmers in Palandur village in Maharashtra. They had to sell their land because they needed the money. I remember visiting my mother’s village in Gondia district four years ago when the harvest was being collected. Everyone was celebrating by applying colours on each other’s faces – it was like Holi! I realised then how important a good crop is to them. I also heard that farmers sometimes struggle against forest officials who won’t let them farm the land on the edge of the forest. Farmers have to fight to grow our food.
I arrived at the maidan at the same time as the farmers from Nandurbar district. They were holding the Shibli, a piece of bamboo in the shape of a hollow cylinder which holds a ball inside and is covered with colourful threads twisted to resemble flowers. It can weigh three to five kilograms and is further draped in flowers and garlands, making it colourful and attractive. The Shibli is carried on the head and people around it dance to the beats of a dhol [percussion instrument], played by a person accompanying them. I didn’t know any of this, but I asked them and found out.
Gavit Mohan, a Bhil Adivasi farmer and member of the Shetkari Kamgar Sanghatana in Nandurbar district of Maharashtra, spoke to me about the mandi system MSP (minimum support price) and how farmers like him rely on it. I didn’t know much and he explained it in a simple way. He told me he teaches Mathematics and Marathi to school students in his village Nimdarde in Nawapur taluka.
I walked around the maidan observing things. Some farmers were sleeping in a tent, tired after the long journeys and the hours of walking. Some were watching and listening to the programme on the stage, and others were headed towards the food stalls.
Omprakash (who prefers to just use this name) is a Class 11 student of Ramniranjan Jhunjhunwala College in Mumbai.
Krishna Gupta completed his Class 12 in 2020 and has since taken up jobs to support his family.