New Delhi: Thousands of farmers protested in India’s capital, demanding better prices for their crops and relief from high debts, underscoring the challenges Prime Minister Narendra Modi faces before elections in his home turf Gujarat next month and nationally in 2019.

Representatives from 184 farmer organizations squatted on a road leading to the parliament building in the heart of New Delhi, demanding a nationwide waiver of crop loans on the lines announced by some states like Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra, higher prices for their produce and lowering seeds and fertilizer costs.

The protest is the latest challenge for Modi who promised to double farm incomes by 2022 and ensure a 50% profit over the cost of production. The number of farmers committing suicides climbed about 42% to 8,007 in 2015 from a year earlier, according to a farm ministry statement in parliament in February.

“I am struggling to take care of my family and considering the current situation, I don’t think I can get out of this mess without any help from the government," said Jayesh Bhai Hurabhai, a farmer from Gujarat. “We have come here with a lot of hope as farmers from all parts of the country have joined hands this time to protest."

Some farmers travelled for more than 1,000 miles (1,609km) from different parts of the country to reach New Delhi to participate in the two-day protest that ended on Tuesday. As many as 300 widows of farmers who have committed suicides in the past years due to high farm loans also took part in the protest, with some holding placards that read “Farmers are Robbed".

Dwindling incomes

About 800 million people of India’s 1.3 billion depend directly or indirectly on farming, with agriculture accounting for about 16% of the economy. The country is the world’s top grower of cotton and the second-biggest producer of wheat, rice and sugar.

The farming community is agitated over falling food prices and high debt levels. Bumper harvests, boosted by a normal monsoon last year after back-to-back droughts and good rain this year, have hurt prices of crops such as oilseeds and pulses. Depressed prices, combined with poor arrangements for government-assured purchases, have triggered these protests.

“I have heard that the country is becoming prosperous. But what am I getting out of it?," said Pintu Patil, a farmer from the western state of Maharashtra. Rising input costs and household expenses are making it difficult to manage a seven-member family with an annual income of just about Rs2 lakh, he said.

Indian farmers are likely to fetch about Rs36,000 crore less this crop season due to lower market prices of top seven commodities, including paddy, corn, cotton, soybean and some pulses, than what they would have received by selling at government-set minimum purchase prices, according to All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee.

Minimum support prices for cotton, paddy and sugar cane have risen between 7% and 16% in the year ending in March 2018 from the start of 2014-15 when Modi came to power, according to government data.

The government procurement agencies, which are mandated to purchase some agricultural commodities at fixed rates to support prices and supply to the government for its welfare programs, buy only a small portion of a commodity’s total output, leaving million of farmers across the country to sell at the market-determined levels. Bloomberg

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