Thousands of Indian farmers began 10-day protests on Friday demanding farm loan waivers and higher prices for produce such as cereals, oilseeds and milk.
Farmers from the states of Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan are also asking for a guaranteed minimum income for farmers.
This is the third major protest by farmers in less than a year. In March, more than 40,000 marched from far-flung districts in the state of Maharashtra to reach the seat of government in the state capital, Mumbai.
The farmers are asking for government support to address the crisis in a sector that employs the majority of the country’s workforce.
Last week, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) suffered defeat in a by-election to a parliamentary seat in a sugar producing region of Uttar Pradesh state amid late payment for farm produce.
Farmers are fighting for survival, said Abhimanyu Kohar, national coordinator of the protest organisers, the Rashtriya Kisan Mahasangh (National Farmers Big Union).
“We need freedom from debt. We are not asking for dole, we are not criminals. The farmer is in debt today not because he has messed up but because of the flawed policies of the government,” Kohar who is based in Sonepat, Haryana, told Al Jazeera.
Farmers say they want minimum support prices (MSP) – the price at which the government buys farm produce. At least 94 percent of farmers sell their produce below MSP, data compiled by the farmers federation shows.
“Be it wheat, cotton, mustard or milk, cost of production is increasing while the farmers are selling below guaranteed prices,” Kohar of the farmers union said.
“This is why the Indian farmer is borrowing and getting imprisoned by mounting debt.”
Economists however, argue that farm loan waivers distort the credit cycle and that subsidy is a band-aid not a solution to the agriculture crisis.
“Loan waivers are relief measures and they only prevent the farmers from getting crushed under the debt burden,” economist Prasenjit Bose told Al Jazeera.
“But they do not provide any long-term solution to depressed farm prices or address the structural issues.”
What is the Farm crisis in India?
Decades of crippling debt, drought and falling income have hit India’s countryside hard and left the future of Indian farming in jeopardy, agricultural experts say.
“It is about lack of viability in farming, accentuated by climate change, whereby farmers land up in a constant debt economy,” said Kavitha Kuruganti, of the farmers’ advocacy group ASHA.
“While a whole lot of things make the situation difficult to deal with (falling incomes, crop losses etc.), the immediate trigger for farmer suicides is often the pressure from creditors to repay, where “naming and shaming” happens, or property is seized etc,” she said.
According to government data, 52 percent of farming families in India are indebted.
Watch: Why is the plight of Indian farmers’ being ignored? (25:00)
Who is protesting and why?
The Rashtriya Kisan Mahasangh is organising the protests but some well-known farmers groups, like the All India Kisan Sangharsh Samanvay Samiti, a federation of 193 organisations are staying away
On June 8, the farmers federation will hold a commemoration event at Mandsaur in Madhya Pradesh, where six farmers were killed by police during protests last year. There will also be a symbolic hunger strike on June 8. A pan-India strike on June 10 will conclude the protest.
Dwindling farm incomes
Farming contributes 17 percent to India’s $2.3-trillion economy but incomes for farmers are not increasing.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi had promised to double farmers’ income by 2022, but critics say he is falling woefully short.
Indian states periodically waive off farm loans but analysts say the policies have failed to benefit farmers.
Last year, the Maharashtra, which leads the country for farmer suicides, announced a farm loan waiver of $5.23bn.
Economists warn any plan to help farmers by the government must be careful not to widen the budget deficit or end up violating World Trade Organisation (WTO) trade rules.
The Indian government sets purchase prices for about two dozen crops but it buys only a small portion, leaving farmers to deal with nosediving prices during bumper harvests.
Last month, the US told the WTO that India is in violation of WTO rules by supporting its rice and wheat farmers with payments that are far higher than permissible amounts.
“I wish Indian farmers were as politically powerful as the American farmers. US farmers are two percent of the population and they get monumental subsidies. In contrast Indian farmers get peanuts in the name of subsidies,” says independent food and trade policy analyst Devinder Sharma.
Over 300,000 farmers have committed suicide since 1995, according to National Crime Records Bureau data. That figure is contested by activists who say the number is likely to be much higher.
Research by universities, including Punjab Agricultural University, showed 16,600 farmers ended their lives between 2000 and 2016 or almost 1,000 a year in the Punjab state. However, NCRB figures for the same period say it is less than 300 a year.
Finding a solution
Farmers like Kohar at the Rashtriya Kisan Mahasangh warn the stir will intensify if farmers are ignored.
“India’s corporates have had their loans waived off. Billionaire loan defaulters like jeweller Nirav Modi fled the country. Doesn’t that hurt the economy? Some farmers have recently received bank cheques of 1 rupee ($0.015) as loan waiver- isn’t this a disgusting joke?” says Kohar.
Official data released in 2016 says the average annual income of a farmer in 17 states is less than Rs 20,000 ($298).
The official Census 2011 shows more than 2,400 farmers quit agriculture and migrate to the cities every day.
Indian farming is in the midst of a very deep crisis, said Devinder Sharma, an independent food and trade policy analyst.
“The crisis is evident from the hundreds of thousands of farmer suicides. Successive governments in India feel you need to take people out of farming and our economic policies are designed to do that. Farming is being sacrificed to keep so-called economic reforms alive,” Sharma told Al Jazeera.
“Economists have double-standards. They say writing off corporate loans is economic growth. Why is the same not being said about farmers’ loans? After all both farmers and corporates are using the same banks.
“We need to pay at least 18,000 rupees ($268) a month to a farmer family to survive. We need to move away from price policy to income-policy which is WTO compatible.”