Five farmers killed in India during protests about debt and crop prices

A woman sorts through the cotton harvest in Maharashtra (Credit: Alex Rossi / Flickr)

Five farmers were killed today in Madhya Pradesh, India, during violent protests against what they contend are unfair pricing and debt obligations.

Demonstrations by Indian farmers over allegations of excessive debt and improper financing that began last Thursday in the neighboring state of Maharashtra have escalated as they also spread to other regions. Despite a record harvest this season and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s promise to double farmer income over the next five years, many say they are drowning in debt and can barely make a living from plunging crop prices.

Such persistent problems are alleged to have prompted hundreds of thousands of farmers to have taken their own lives over the last three decades in India.

Last week, farmers in western Maharashtra instead banded together to strike after repeated negotiations with the state failed to produce desired results. Dumping milk and produce in the streets, shutting down wholesale markets and blocking highways, they demanded debt forgiveness and better crop prices.

By Monday, the protest had spread to Madhya Pradesh, where it turned violent. According to reports, protestors began burning vehicles and vandalizing public transportation. Then shots were fired in the central city of Mandsaur today, killing at least five and injuring others.

“The police started firing to disperse the crowd. Farmers were not carrying weapons,” Gajendra Tokas, a spokesperson for the Rashtriya Kisan Mazdoor Sangh farmers’ union, said according to The Tribune.

However, police deny firing at protestors. Instead, Madhya Pradesh’s Home Minister Bhupendra Singh blamed “anti-social elements” posing as farmers. The state’s Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan has also accused the opposition Indian National Congress party for inciting violence. The organizers of the strike maintain that the protest is apolitical.

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Politics aside, the plight of India’s farmers begs to be addressed. According the National Crime Record Bureau, 12,602 farmers committed suicide in 2015. On average, that’s one farmer suicide every 42 minutes. More than one-third of those were in Maharashtra, and the reason was overwhelmingly “bankruptcy or indebtedness.”

The unsustainable system of agriculture in India can arguably be traced back to the green revolution, which forced farmers to take loans to keep up with high yield demands. However, the latest wave of unrest can be attributed more immediately to consecutive droughts in 2014 and 2015 that yielded abysmal harvests and led to a spate of suicides when farmers and farm workers could not repay loans.

Things should have improved with the latest high-yield harvest. But the prime minister’s demonetization scheme in November, which pulled the two highest denomination cash bills out of circulation, caused wholesale vegetable prices to collapse. As a result, many farmers had to dump their harvests or sell at prices below the minimum support price set by the government.

When the newly-elected ruling party in the state of Uttar Pradesh announced a $5 billion farm loan waiver in April, farmers in Maharashtra wanted one as well, since they are ruled by the same party. According to the Chief Minister of Maharashtra Devendra Fadnavis, the state will waive the debts of about 11 million farmers with less than five acres of land by the end of October. However, the farmers want solutions now.

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Among their demands are a waiver of all farm loans, minimum support prices that are 50 percent over costs of production, a pension for farmers 60 years and older, interest free credit, higher prices for milk and fully-subsidized micro-irrigation equipment.

Since the strike began, fresh produce prices have more than doubled in Maharashtra’s capital, Mumbai.

Although the debt waivers will provide immediate relief to distressed farmers, researchers say long-term solutions must focus on income and productivity.

“Assistance in paying off outstanding principal and interest helps the money lenders, but has failed to create reliable and good sources of income for the farmer,” G.L. Parvathamma, associate professor of econommics at Bangalore University, wrote in a study last year. “The usurious moneylenders continue to offer loans at interest rates between 24 to 50 percent, while income generating potential of the farmer’s land has remained low and is subject to weather conditions.”

Although more than 50 percent of India’s labor force works in agriculture, the sector only accounts for 17 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). In a speech on Monday, Chief Economic Advisor Arvind Subramanian noted that the median income of a farm household in India is just 1,600 rupees (less than $25) a month, according to LiveMint.

“The truth is, it simply does not pay to be a farmer in India.”

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Joanne Lu

Joanne Lu is a South Carolina-based writer and editor dedicated to global development, poverty alleviation and social justice. After a year in Rwanda, she now covers the Asia-Pacific and economics. Find her on Twitter @joannelu or email joanne@humanosphere.com.