Agrarian Conditions and Recent Peasant Struggles in Sikar

Vikas Rawal

situated in Shekhawati region of Rajasthan, has a glorious history of peasant
struggles. From 1920s through 1960s, peasants of Sikar fought successfully
against the jagirdars.
Sikar had an extremely oppressive jagirdari
regime under the Raja of Sikar and peasants worked under a huge burden of taxes
(lag) and obligation
to provide unpaid labour and military services (bag). It was on account of peasant struggles that started
in the early 1920s and culminated with abolition of the Jagirdari system
in the 1950s that sharecroppers in Sikar got ownership (khatedari) rights over land.

From the 1960s
through the 1980s, the struggles for progressive change in rural Rajasthan were
fought on three main fronts. In Udaipur and Dungarpur, adivasis organised under
the red flag to take forward the struggles of adivasis for land rights and
against oppression by the feudal landlords, traders, local officials and
police. In the North-western region of Rajasthan, where Indira Gandhi Canal was
being constructed, the Kisan Sabha led the struggle for allotment of land to
landless households. In Sikar, the focus of struggles was on education, as
students from peasant households fought to have access to schools and colleges.
Student Federation of India provided leadership to these struggles in Sikar.
Students from peasant households, which had been liberated from the shackles of
the jagirdari system,
joined the Student Federation of India and struggled for better facilities for
education. Given the predominantly agrarian character of the society in Sikar,
struggles by the Kisan Sabha and the Student Federation for India were always
directly related and strengthened each other.
It is of note
that, with an annual rainfall of just about 600 mm, high summer temperatures
and sandy soils, agriculture in Shekhawati region suffers from severe water
scarcity. Frequent droughts are a major cause of continued economic distress in
the region. Since the 1970s, large numbers of skilled workers – mechanics,
drivers, plumbers and masons – from villages and towns of Shekhawati started
migrating to the gulf region and to other parts of India. Remittances received
from migrant workers have been an important source of income for rural
households and facilitated investments in tubewell irrigation and mechanisation
of agriculture. Although expansion of tubewell irrigation facilitated
significant agricultural growth in the region, agricultural yields remain
highly sensitive to vagaries of the weather.
Growth of
agricultural production in the region has been led by an increase in yields of
wheat and rapeseed. Rajasthan is the largest producer of rapeseed in India.
Shekhawati region was at the forefront of growth of oilseed production in India
since mid-1980s. Wheat, rapeseed and onion are the major crops of rabi season
in Shekhawati. With high temperatures and low rainfall, agricultural production
in the kharif season is dominated by unirrigated pearl millet. Incomes from
crop production are mainly in the rabi season when wheat, rapeseed and onion
are sown on land that has access to groundwater irrigation.
buffaloes, camels and goats is also an important occupation of rural households
in the region. Landscape of Shekhawati region is dotted with khejri (Prosopis cineraria) trees,
which can survive in the worst of the droughts and are an important source of
fodder for camel and goats. Buffaloes are mainly fed wheat and pearl millet
straw. With frequent droughts, selling these animals during drought years is an
important drought-proofing strategy for rural households. In particular, large
numbers of cows and buffaloes are sold during drought years because of lack of
availability of fodder.
Over the last
25 years, successive Congress and BJP governments in Rajasthan have taken the
lead to implement the neo-liberal economic policies. Withdrawal of public
support, subsidies and increase in energy costs have meant that agriculture in
this ecologically fragile region has become riskier and less remunerative. With
increased cost of production, droughts result in large losses.
The All India
Kisan Sabha (AIKS), with large popular support in Shekhawati and in the
canal-irrigated North Western region, has successfully mobilised peasants against
anti-farmer policies of these governments.
In 2004-05,
Kisan Sabha organised agitations for release of canal water in Sri Ganganagar
and Hanumangarh districts and for reversal of power tariff hike in Shekhawati
region. The agitations were met with brutal repression by the then BJP
government in which six peasants were killed, hundreds injured, and many
leaders and protestors jailed. Finally, an eight day long mahapadav (mass sit-in) in
Jaipur, in which about one lakh peasants participated, brought the then
Vasundhara Raje Scindia government to its knees. All demands of agitating
peasants were accepted by the government and the hike in electricity tariff was
put on hold.
implementation of MGNREGA and debt waiver announced by P. Chidambaram in
February 2008 helped Congress in coming back to power in elections held in
December 2008. However, with the UPA-II government at the Centre and the
Congress government in the State only working to further neo-liberal policy
agenda, these gains dissipated quickly and Congress lost again to BJP in the
2013 elections.
distress in Shekhawati intensified greatly after BJP formed governments at the
Centre and in the State. On the back of two successive years of drought, the
BJP governments launched an assault on livelihoods of farmers with
demonetisation, restrictions on cattle trade, terror of cow vigilante groups,
increases in power tariff, stagnation of minimum support prices, and imposition
of GST. In September 2016, Rajasthan Electricity Regulatory Commission
announced an increase of 35 paise per unit in the price of electricity for
agriculture. Demonetisation was announced when farmers were about to harvest
their onion crops. Crash in prices of onion resulted in massive losses, and
many farmers were forced to dump their crops. Low Minimum Support Price of
wheat and rapeseed further contributed to the distress among farmers.
Shekhawati and nearby areas have seen many attacks on cow traders by gau-rakshak groups because of
which farmers in distress are unable to sell even their unproductive cattle.
Abandoned cattle have become a menace, destroying crops in villages, because of
inability of farmers to sell cattle.
Early this
year, Kisan Sabha started mobilising peasants against the electricity tariff
hike. After a series of meetings in the villages, a large demonstration was
organised in Sikar on February 2, 2017, which was attended by about 30,000
people. It was decided to organised a large sit-in in Jaipur on March 2nd.
However, sensing the widespread anger against the anti-farmer decisions, on
February 18th, Vasundhara Raje Government decided to reverse the decision of
increasing power tariff.
Although the
increase of power tariff was reversed, intense economic distress continued
among farmers due to a number of policy decisions of the central and the state
government. AIKS prepared a charter of 12 demands which included waiver of farm
loans, implementation of Swaminathan Commission report, payment of remunerative
prices, removal of restrictions on cattle trade, dealing with the problem of
abandoned cattle, reversal of withdrawal of funds to cooperative societies,
pension for farmers, employment opportunities to the unemployed, removal of
toll charges, provision of free electricity for agriculture, building canal
irrigation network in Sikar, prevention of atrocities against dalits,
minorities and women, and improving the public distribution system and
implementation of MGNREGA.
To pressurise
the government, AIKS organised a kisan curfew for four hours in Sikar on July
17 and a programme of mass arrests on August 9. Campaigns were conducted across
the district to mobilise peasants. Finally, a mahapadav was organised on September 1, which lasted for 13
days. Over this period, about 15,000 peasants sat on a dharna at the Sikar mandi,
while lakhs of people, from various sections, were on the streets to enforce a
total strike across Sikar district. In addition, protest actions were organised
in 11 other districts in which thousands of people participated.
A massive
mobilisation of people, which included not just farmers but all sections of the
working people in Sikar and 11 other districts, forced the government to talk
to kisan leaders and accept their demands.
Kisans of
Sikar have fought many valiant struggles against oppression and against
anti-people state policies. This year’s struggle in Sikar has once again shown
that it is only through such mobilisations of working people that anti-people
actions of the current government can be checked. 

(Vikas Rawal is a professor in CESP, JNU)