Giant March Spares Students' Exams As Farmers Protest In Mumbai

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MUMBAI: Thousands of farmers holding red flags who arrived in Mumbai yesterday reached the Azad Maidan before the crack of dawn. At least 50,000 farmers walked through the night so that students who will be writing their Board exams today aren't inconvenienced. A lit-up Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus provided a spectacular backdrop as the farmer contingent, swelling by the day, marched to folk songs.

Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis had appealed to farmers not to hold up traffic and cause problems for Class 10 students. "I have only made an appeal that they should not cause any problem to the traffic since it's an exam day and more than one lakh students will get affected," Mr Fadnavis said.

Their march, being referred to as "sea of red" now, has so far been peaceful and didn't affect traffic in Mumbai on Sunday when they entered the city after an 180-km walk from Nashik, led by the Left-affiliated All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS).

One of the farmers at Azad Maidan said that he hadn't had the opportunity to go to school, therefore, he wouldn't want to create hurdles for those who have their exam today. "I understand the importance of education and our protest will not create problems for students as well as commuters," he said.

The farmers, who had camped at the KJ Somaiya Ground in Sion, began moving towards the Azad Maidan, about 15 km away, a little after midnight. They will spend the next few hours at the Maidan as they negotiate with the government before gheraoing the Vidhan Sabha, two kms from here, as was planned before the farmers began their gruelling long march on Tuesday. A complete loan waiver and transfer of land to tribal farmers are among their key demands.

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

The farmers demand the implementation of the Swaminathan Committee report, which mandates that farmers be paid one-and-a-half times the cost of production and the Minimum Support Price be fixed for their produce.

Senior Minister Girish Mahajan, who also marched around 3.30 am, told NDTV that the Maharashtra government has been in touch with the farmers ever since their march began. The chief minister has been monitoring the situation, he said.

Government sources suggest the protesters will not be allowed to proceed beyond Azad Maidan and a delegation will be allowed to come to the Vidhan Bhavan to meet the Chief Minister. The All India Kisan Sabha says they are willing to consider what the government offers.
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