New Delhi: Farmers in Maharashtra began an indefinite strike early on Monday to protest against a sharp fall in wholesale milk prices by disrupting supplies to major cities such as Mumbai, Pune and Nagpur.

The strike has been called by the Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana headed by member of Parliament Raju Shetti.

Farmers in several parts of Maharashtra are paid between 16 and 20 for a litre of cow milk, which is as much or even less than the price of a litre of bottled water. In retail, a litre of cow milk sells for more than 40 after some of the fat content is extracted.

“We want the state government to provide a direct subsidy of 5 per litre to the farmer like in Karnataka," Shetti said. “The government has earlier announced subsidies to dairy firms but did not pass this on to farmers," he said.

The farmers, who have waited for months for the government to do something, are now upset and angry, Shetti said.

The protest comes against the backdrop of repeated protests by farmers in Maharashtra since June last year following the fall in prices of crops such as soybean and pulses, which was compounded by the pest attacks on cotton.

A part of the problem is that international prices of skimmed milk power (SMP) has crashed and dairy companies in India are not able to export SMP produced from the surplus milk, said T. Nanda Kumar, former chairman of National Dairy Development Board. In Maharashtra, the problem is compounded by the fact that it is home to numerous small cooperatives with very weak marketing structures and limited product lines. “The problem is here to stay for some time," Kumar said.

Farmers in Maharashtra are also upset by the fact that last year the government raised procurement price of cow milk from 24 to 27 per litre but they did not benefit from this price increase.

“The government should start distributing milk in welfare schemes for children to help resolve the surplus problem," said Ajit Nawale, leader of All India Kisan Sabha. “Right now dairies are buying it cheap from farmers without reducing prices for the consumer," he said.

Speaking on behalf of the government in the legislative assembly, minister of state for water conservation Vijay Shivtare, blamed the cooperatives for the plight of milk producers while legislators of the opposition Congress and Nationalist Congress Party staged a walkout from the House. Earlier on Monday, chief minister Devendra Fadnavis said the government is willing to talk to agitators.

Abhiram Ghadyalpatil from Nagpur contributed to this story.