The deaths of five farmers after a protest to seek loan waivers turned violent have intensified farmers' protests across India, highlighting a growing agrarian crisis that could also hurt Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The farmers were shot dead by police on Tuesday in the city of Mandsaur in Madhya Pradesh, a state ruled by Mr Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party.
They were seeking debt relief and institutional reforms to ensure higher prices for their produce.
The protests, which have been going on for a week in Madhya Pradesh but for several weeks in Maharashtra, could end up being Mr Modi's greatest challenge, especially since two of the affected states are ruled by his party.
"This is very much an explosive issue. I think the two biggest challenges for Modi in the last two years of his term are farmers and young people's aspirations for employment. These two will be key to what happens in 2019 (general elections)," said political scientist Sandeep Shastri, who is pro-vice-chancellor of Jain University.
Agriculture accounts for nearly a fifth of India's gross domestic product and employs about half its workforce, so improving productivity, efficiency and prices for farmers' produce will have a major impact on the economy and livelihoods. The sector has been the slowest-growing in India, with growth averaging around 2 per cent a year, exacerbating the crisis.
Large loans, small landholdings, failure to boost productivity, dependence on rain for water, poor irrigation infrastructure and overuse of groundwater have added to farmers' woes.
UNDERPAID FOR PRODUCE
The solution is to somehow build a transparent system where the producer gets at least half of what the consumer pays for agricultural produce. A farmer today sells tomatoes at one rupee a kg when they go for 10 rupees in supermarkets. A loan waiver will have only a short-term impact.
ASSISTANT PROFESSOR A.V. MANJUNATHA, from the Institute for Social and Economic Change.
All these leave farmers particularly vulnerable to a poor season. Perversely, bumper crops arising from a good monsoon can also lead to a surplus of produce, pushing down prices and hurting farmers' ability to pay off their loans.
"Eighty-five per cent of farmers are marginal with small landholdings with loans averaging 100,000 rupees (S$2,150) to 150,000 rupees. We have to educate our children, take care of personal expenses," said Mr Kedar Sirohi, a Madhya Pradesh farmer who heads Aam Kisan Union, a local farmers' union.
"The situation is so bad, small farmers are marrying their daughters off through the government's mass marriage programmes," he told The Straits Times, adding: "We will continue our protests. Why are we being treated like criminals and being shot at?"
The deaths have resonated across India, with farmers countrywide facing similar problems of large loans and poor earnings. Farmers held protests in the southern cities of Chennai and Bangalore yesterday. In northern Punjab state, farmers have widened a call for loan waivers, to seek justice for the five farmers who were killed in Madhya Pradesh.
According to an economic survey carried out last year for 17 Indian states, a farming family earns 20,000 rupees a year on average, or 1,700 rupees a month.
Assistant Professor A.V. Manjunatha at the Institute for Social and Economic Change, which conducts social sciences research and training, said that, instead of giving loan waivers, the government had to reform the sector, for instance, by ensuring that crop insurance was paid out within days instead of months.
He said: "The solution is to somehow build a transparent system where the producer gets at least half of what the consumer pays for agricultural produce. A farmer today sells tomatoes at one rupee a kg when they go for 10 rupees in supermarkets. A loan waiver will have only a short-term impact."