India's bishops support strike by desperate farmers

Food prices soar in cities as farmers withold produce for 10-days
India's bishops support strike by desperate farmers

A file image of Indian farmer family members extracting grain from a paddy crop in Sonipat in the northern state of Haryana on Oct. 13, 2017. Haryana is one of the states were farmers are refusing to provide produce to markets as part of a 10-day strike. (Photo by Prakash Singh/AFP)

Millions of farmers across India's seven major states have launched a 10-day strike demanding higher prices for their produce and loan waivers with rights activist and church groups pledging support to their struggle.

Days after beginning June 1, the strike has begun to affect urban areas of central and northern India where farmers are refusing to provide produce to markets resulting in soaring food prices.

The farmers are conducting the strike in a bid to force the federal government to buy their produce at a minimum support price equal to the cost of production plus a further 50 percent of that cost. They also want the government to waive off all farm loans and to ensure an income for farmers.

"These are the core demands and they have remained consistent for a long time," said Shiv Kumar Sharma from the Rashtriya Kisan Mahasangh (National Farmers' Forum) which is coordinating the strike.

"We want people in the cities to understand how vital farmers are to their daily lives. That is why we have decided to stop supplies to cities," he told media.

More than 130 farmers' associations in the states of Haryana, Rajasthan, Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Karnataka have joined the forum for the strike.

The strike comes a year after police shot and killed six farmers during a similar protest in the states of Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra on June 6, 2017.

At least 12,000 farmers have committed suicide each year since 2013 with many of them taking such measures to escape large debts brought on by drought conditions and unseasonable rains. 

The Catholic Church is "with the protesting farmers and concerned about their legitimate demands," said Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas, secretary-general of the Indian bishop conference.

The church is "saddened by the suicides … we cannot abdicate our responsibilities towards them," the bishop said.

Catholics and other Christians in India "as part of society cannot close our eyes toward the burning problems of farmers, who are our lifeline," he said.

Jerry Paul, a rights activist and national coordinator of Sarva Isai Mahasabha, an ecumenical forum of Christians in Madhya Pradesh, told that the farming sector is a "huge concern for all … beyond the differences of religion and politics."

The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi "has threatened farmers with stringent actions such as depriving them of all government benefits" if they proceed with the protest, Paul said.

Modi and his pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) swept to power in 2014. During campaigning it promised to support price increases, waive loans and changes in policies to make the farming sector profitable, ensuring prosperity for farmers.

However, the past four years has seen farmers' income deteriorate. India has a cumulative farm loan burden of US$49.1 billion, or 2.6 per cent of the country's GDP in 2016-17, according to government figures. 

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BJP-supported farmers' union, the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh, has not joined the strike calling it politically motivated.

"This is political agitation and is not about farmers' issues," Sangh' national secretary Mohini Mohan told web portal

"There are politically motivated elements that plan violence and this one has been organized keeping the 2019 [national] elections in mind. We don't want to be part of it," Mohan said, suggesting opposition parties were behind the strike to show Modi's BJP government in a poor light.

Opposition Congress party leader in Madhya Pradesh, Saji Abraham, told that the farmers' demands are genuine and that the BJP-supported farmers union and government agencies are trying cover up their failures.

"It is not the issue of farmers alone. It is the question of the future of the nation. Unless we forget our concerns and protect farmers the country will have a bleak future," said Abraham, a Christian.

The estimated number of farmers in India vary from 263 million to 450 million, depending on if landless farmers are counted. At least half of India's 27 million Christians, especially in the southern and northeastern states, are engaged in cultivation while most Christians in villages of northern India are engaged in farm work.

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