Indian farmers strike over loans

Walkouts curb milk, vegetable supply to Mumbai

MUMBAI (Reuters) — Farmers from India's western state of Maharashtra started an indefinite strike on Thursday, curtailing the supply of vegetables, fruits and milk to cities such as Mumbai in a move that could push up food prices in the coming days.

Indebted farmers are demanding a waiver on loans from the government of the big farming state similar to the US$5.6 billion in debt forgiveness announced by the northern state of Uttar Pradesh in April.

"We were forced to strike as the chief minister couldn't assure us that a loan waiver will be implemented quickly," said farmers' leader Dhanjay Jadhav, who met Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis and other state representatives on Tuesday.

Such outbursts of rural discontent in Maharashtra and other states represent a challenge to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has promised to double the income of farmers over the next five years.

Two-thirds of India's 1.3 billion people depend directly or indirectly on farming for their livelihoods but only account for 14 per cent of gross domestic product, reflecting a growing divide between the countryside and increasingly well-off cities.

Maharashtra needs to spend 305 billion rupees (US$4.7 billion) to write off debts owed by 3.2 million farmers, Fadnavis had said in April.

"We will continue to strike until our demands of loan waiver and remunerative prices for agriculture produce are met. Instead of sending vegetables and milk to the cities, we will dispose of them in our villages," Jadhav said.

On Thursday morning, farmers in the state blocked vehicles ferrying vegetables and milk to cities and dumped their loads of produce on to the road in many places.

"Farmers have set up check posts on national highways to ensure vehicles carrying vegetables and fruits cannot enter the city," said a trader based at Vashi market on the outskirts of Mumbai.

"Prices have started to rise due to lower supplies. If tomorrow trucks fail to enter into the market then prices could rise sharply," he said.

Farmers were mainly targeting milk tankers and trucks carrying vegetables on national highways leading to Mumbai and the information and technology hub Pune, said a senior police official who declined to be named.

He said police had detained more than 100 farmers at different locations for damaging vehicles.

Farmers should immediately end the strike as the government is ready to discuss their demands, Sadabhau Khot, the state government's junior agriculture minister, told reporters.

Organizers said millions of farmers in Maharashtra — home to one in every 10 Indians — took part in the strike. The number could not be independently verified.

In April, farmers from Tamil Nadu staged a grisly protest in New Delhi in support of their demand for debt relief, pretending to eat live rats and showing the skulls of neighbours who they said had committed suicide.

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