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As Food Prices Drop, India's Farmers Are Demanding Changes From The Government


In India, food prices are low. This keeps poor people from starving. It also means little profit for farmers. That's caused Indian farmers to take to the streets.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in foreign language).

CORNISH: They're demanding the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi forgive their debt and set higher prices for produce. NPR's Lauren Frayer traveled to rural Maharashtra to meet farmers, a powerful voting bloc in the upcoming election.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Sanjay Sathe grows onions on about an acre of land on a roadside.

SANJAY SATHE: Onion, onion.

FRAYER: This little farm prospered under Sathe's grandfather and father. Now the family has a side gig raising goats because the price of onions keeps falling.


FRAYER: We're looking at about a football field-sized onion field. And how many onions can you grow in this field?

SATHE: (Speaking Marathi).

FRAYER: From a good harvest, he says he can make the equivalent of about $350. That has to last his family half a year. But this harvest was not good. He made a paltry 15 bucks and decided to pull a stunt. Sathe sent a money order for his entire profit, that whopping $15, to the prime minister of India, who's running for re-election. Sathe wanted to show him how little farmers have to live on.

SATHE: (Through interpreter) The government neglects farmers. It gives tax breaks to big business, and it plays up controversies over Hindu temples and such, all of it for votes. But look at us. We're dying here.

FRAYER: He's not being dramatic. There's been a suicide epidemic among Indian farmers as food prices drop and pesticides and fertilizers get more expensive. This Indian government has been cautious about meeting farmers' demands for higher food prices, says economist R. Ramakumar.

R RAMAKUMAR: Farmers want higher prices. Consumers want lower prices. So there is enormous opposition to the idea of increasing the minimum support prices for farmers because it is argued that it will lead to inflation.

FRAYER: In the case of onions, there's no minimum price, so it's particularly volatile. In recent weeks, the price of onions has dropped by more than 80 percent because of surplus and fewer exports.

Workers pack onions at Maharashtra's wholesale market. My producer and I found rows upon rows of flatbed trucks overflowing with onions rotting in the sun.

UNIDENTIFIED FARMER: (Speaking Marathi).

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: So they wait to see the prices will go up. So they waited, waited, waited. And now these have become really old.

FRAYER: Whose onions are these? Is it someone here?


UNIDENTIFIED FARMER: (Speaking Marathi).

FRAYER: Farmer Vijay Ghayal simply refuses to sell at a loss.

VIJAY GHAYAL: (Speaking Hindi).

FRAYER: At this rate, he says he can't even afford the rent on his truck. The farmers all look desperate. Meanwhile, farmer Sathe got his money order returned from the prime minister. And he got some somber news from fellow farmers. Two local onion growers had killed themselves.


FRAYER: Sitting cross-legged on her cement floor, Irabai Jadhav describes how she lost her son. He was about $40,000 in debt. He drank pesticide in late November. Irabai's husband died of a heart attack 12 days later. And now she is left with all of their bills.

JADHAV: (Through interpreter) My son was the only one educated in our family. He's the only one who understood the loan documents. I'm worried about how I'll feed his children. I rue the day we ever became farmers. The farmer dies feeding this country, but no one fights for the farmer.

FRAYER: With elections coming, political parties are fighting for farmers' votes, offering to forgive debt owed to state banks. But many loans to farmers are private and predatory. Interest rates average around 40 percent. Half of India works in agriculture, and people here say onion prices can sway elections. The widow Irabai Jadhav's family says whoever's willing to help them will have their votes. Lauren Frayer, NPR News, in rural Maharashtra, India.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLAZO'S "NATURAL GREEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.