NEW DELHI - Barely a kilometer from the Indian parliament in downtown Delhi, people usually whiz by a backstreet without casting a glance at the medley of groups staging protests.
But the newest group camping out is hard to ignore. With human skulls and bones hung around their necks and spread on a sheet before them, a group of farmers wearing skimpy green loincloths is drawing attention to a farm crisis that they say has impoverished them and left them mired in debt.
Coming from Tamil Nadu state in India's deep south, the protesters say the skulls are those of fellow farmers who committed suicide after the worst drought in more than 100 years left in its wake devastated crops and barren farms.
“This is the skull of the farmer who died, this is the bone of the farmer,” said P. Ayyakkannu, the protest leader.
WATCH: Video of protesters and their demands
Farmers want loans forgiven
They have returned to New Delhi for a second time – they called off an earlier 40-day protest in April after the state’s chief minister promised to address their demands for loan waivers.
But those assurances were never kept, said Ayyakkannu. “They promised we will not sell jewels pledged in the bank, we will not take action against your land. But they have not helped us.”
For the past two weeks the protesting farmers have lived on the street, slept on the street and eaten from a community kitchen close by.
They were not always in distress. Many of them own two to four hectares of land that once gave them bountiful crops of rice, oilseeds and lentils and a reasonable income. But they say they now struggle to make a living because prices for farm produce have remained static for several years. And last year’s devastating drought was the last straw -- they could not harvest a single crop from their parched fields.
The lone woman who has accompanied them, 46-year-old Rani, sits quietly in a corner, but breaks down as she describes how her husband committed suicide some months ago when he could not repay a $1250 loan to the bank.
That loan now hangs heavy over her head. Rani is desperate – she had no option but to become a daily wage laborer on a government rural works program, but some of the money she earns is taken by the bank to pay down the debt.
Suicide is a reality
Suicides by small farmers due to financial distress caused by unseasonal rains and drought are a reality in India. According to official data, tens of thousands of farmers have taken their lives in the past decade -- often by consuming pesticides. But the deaths take place in the remote countryside and seldom grab headlines.
That is what the protesters from Tamil Nadu hope to change with their unusual protest in the Indian capital.
Their demand for better prices for crops and loan waivers is being echoed by farmers across the country amid what experts say is a brewing agrarian crisis.
Farm income lags
Although the agriculture sector provides livelihoods for two thirds of the population, many farmers have been left out of India’s economic growth story. Over the past decade, the rural sector has grown at just two per cent compared to the overall growth of seven percent in recent years.
Farm expert Devinder Sharma blames successive governments for policies that have keep prices of agricultural produce low. “They are not getting the right price because they [government] want to keep inflation low.” Sharma explained that for the last five years prices for most crops have not increased. “That has created a huge crisis and the farmer is burdened under debt.”
The federal government has pledged to double farm incomes in five years by spending billions of dollars to boost rural infrastructure such as irrigation and roads and giving farmers more access to credit and crop insurance schemes.
But farmers want immediate help. Two months ago, angry protests that killed six farmers in Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra states highlighted how even a bountiful monsoon last year failed to ease the distress of many – bumper crops led to a price crash.
Dwindling farm incomes have led to a steady migration from rural to urban areas.
The youngest protester here, 28-year-old Prakash said his family moved to the city after his father stopped tilling their land nearly a decade ago.
“We do not get a profitable price, that is why we threw up farming,” he said. “It the pathetic condition of a farmer. I am the real life example of how farmers moved on to some other works.”
Anger among farmers has increased after the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, which won power in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh earlier this year, agreed to waive off farm loans in that state to meet election pledges.
Now these farmers from Tamil Nadu are vowing not to leave until their demands are met. “In democracy country, they must see us, they must hear us, but they are doing nothing. That is why we are sitting here,” said Ayyakkannu.