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India to Help Crisis-Ridden Farmers

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is on a two-day visit to the western state of Maharashtra, where farmers are facing an agricultural crisis. His visit comes as a U.N. Development Program report calls for a renewed focus on agriculture in South Asia to protect the livelihoods of millions of poor people.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh promised Friday to do all he can to help farmers in the cotton gowing region of Vidarbha in Maharashtra, where debt and crop failure has pushed thousands of farmers to commit suicide in recent years.

The government has drawn up plans for a relief package that includes waiving loans, improving irrigation, distributing free seed and providing interest-free credit for cultivation.

Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar, who is accompanying the prime minister on his visit to Maharashtra, told reporters that India is going through "a severe agrarian crisis."

Officials say more than 8,000 farmers have committed suicide in four hard-hit states in the last five years.

Analysts say India is finally waking up to a problem that has been building for over a decade. India's farmers depend heavily on seasonal monsoon rains, but erratic rainfall has led to successive crop failures. And lack of access to cheap credit has burdened thousands of farmers with crippling debts.

A U.N. Development Program report released Thursday echoes these concerns. It says that agriculture supports a majority of the people in the populous South Asian region, but the sector has been languishing for many years.

U.N. Assistant Secretary-General Hafiz Pasha says the new focus by countries like India on the manufacturing and services sector has led to an economic boom, but also created a vast gulf between cities and rural areas.

"Traditionally, the view has been that probably the fastest growth is certainly in industry and some of the more modern formal sector services," he said. "Growth has been achieved as a result of change of priorities but it has led to a pattern of growth which has increased inequalities and particularly led to a situation where rural poverty has become a very serious problem."

The U.N. also warns that food prices in the region could spiral as land under cultivation falls and countries like India no longer grow enough food for their people.

The report says that Asia - once a food surplus region - is now a net importer of agricultural products.

The report calls on governments to invest more heavily in rural areas to protect farmers, and ensure that countries do not face a food deficit in the future.