Two thirds of India’s 1.3 billion people rely on farming to make ends meet. With the vast majority of them small scale farmers, it’s a life of hard physical work and very modest returns.
And now, times are even tougher than usual. With farmers fighting for survival, many have joined strikes and protests, demanding an end to the government’s anti-farmer policies.
But the strikes recently turned bloody. Police opened fire on protestors and killed six farmers in the city of Madasaur.
Shuriah Niazi has this report from the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh.
Farmers dumped vegetables and spilt milk over roads. Wielding sticks, they blocked highways.
Blocking produce from reaching major cities, the farmers hoped that city dwellers would start to understand their troubles.
When the price of produce plummeted, farmers in the central Indian states of Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra felt they had no choice but to strike.
But police met peaceful strikers with guns and violence, shooting and killing six farmers on June 6.
Throughout the state, demonstrations turned ugly. Angry farmers pelted police with stones, and set trucks and buses on fire.
Hemant Patidar is a farmer in Sehore district, Madhya Pradesh. He has 13 acres of land, and a family of 6. He says he felt pushed to strike because with mounting debts, survival itself is now difficult.
“Government policies are anti-farmer, they exploit workers,” he said. “We should get a reasonable price for our produce, but we rarely do. This year was a bumper crop, but prices plummeted.”
Farming experts say that the government’s import-export policies are to blame for falling prices.
The government is importing agricultural materials at a rising cost to farmers.
More produce is being imported, and less is being exported.
“As imports rose, farmers in the country couldn’t get the right price for their crop, explained food expert Pushpendra Singh. “At the time of the 2014 election, Narendra Modi promised that the selling price of agriculture products would be at least one-and-a-half times the total input cost. That promise was not fulfilled.”
The Indian government guarantees a minimum price for agricultural produce. That means if prices drop sharply, the government will buy it from farmers at the set minimum price.
But now that prices have dropped, the government’s set minimum price isn’t enough to match the rising costs of farmers.
Farmer Piyush Jadhav says farmers like him are now stuck in an impossible situation.
“No banks are willing to give a loan to farmers, forcing us to borrow from private money lenders at exorbitant interest rates,” Jadhav said. “We’re far from making a profit; we’re not even able to recover our costs.”
Shiv Kumar Sharma, from Rashtriya Kisan Mazdoor Sangh, or the National Farmers Labour Organization, says life is becoming harder for farmers, and the impacts are clear.
“The Madhya Pradesh government has been pursuing anti-farmer policies. Earlier, on average one farmer committed suicide every day in the state. Now this number has risen to six [every day],” Sharma stated.
According to official figures, last year more than 1600 farmers ended their lives in Madhya Pradesh alone.
Shiv blames the desperate situation of farmers on the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). That’s the party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The party has also governed the state of Madhya Pradesh for the last 11 years.
But Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan maintains that the BJP Party is on the side of the farmers.
“After discussion with farmers, we accepted most of their demands,” he claimed. “The government is with the farmers and we shall redress their problems. But the Opposition Congress Party is inciting violence and instigating protests. Congress leaders are spreading anarchy as they want to politicize farmers’ issues. They want to exploit the protests for political gain.”
Meanwhile, as protests escalated, Congress Vice-President, Rahul Gandhi tried to get to Madasaur to meet the families of the 6 farmers killed in the strike. With a curfew imposed, he was blocked from entering the area, but Gandhi struck out at the Prime Minister nonetheless.
“Prime Minister Modi waived loans worth Rs 1.5 trillion for the rich, but not for farmers. He can’t provide the right price for their agricultural produce, can’t give them a bonus, can’t give them compensation,” Gandhi argued. “He can only give them bullets.”
In response to the strikes, some states have announced a loan waiver for farmers, and in increase in the price of milk.
But in Madhya Pradesh the standoff continues. Many say that the lives of Indian farmers will only be improved with much more substantial changes.