From: Ramola Talwar Badam, Associated Press
Published December 13, 2006 12:00 AM

Scores of Indebted Indian Farmers Call off Threat to Jump off Water Tanks

MUMBAI, India -- More than 100 indebted farmers in a western Indian state threatened Wednesday to commit mass suicide by jumping off high water tanks, but later called off their protest after a minister promised to examine their demands for debt write-offs.

The method of their protest was inspired by a popular 1970s Indian movie.

The standoff, which began Tuesday, ended peacefully Wednesday after Maharashtra state Home Minister R.R. Patil scrambled up one of the 50-foot (15-meter) -high tanks to assure them that their problems would be looked into.

Patil told the protest leaders that while the government could not wipe out their debts entirely, they would receive assistance within a month, said local lawmaker and farmer activist Bacchu Kadu.

Kadu, speaking by phone from Amravati, about 700 kilometers (435 miles) northeast of Mumbai, said the farmers decided not to carry out their threat after receiving Patil's promises.

"I decided to take this step since the government shows no urgency to solve the problems of farmers," said Kadu, who was also threatening to jump. "How can we get justice?"

Kadu said the protest was inspired by the hit 1970s Bollywood movie "Sholay" or "Embers," in which the lead character threatens to jump from a water tank unless the family of the girl he loves agrees to allow them to marry.

India's prolific Hindi movie industry, popularly known as Bollywood, is based in Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay.

India's agriculture sector is heavily dependent on annual monsoon rains, but erratic rainfall and crippling water shortages over the past five years have ruined crops and left farmers no choice but to borrow money from loan sharks, often at exorbitant interest rates.

The combination of mounting debt and poverty has triggered thousands of suicides by farmers in Maharashtra and the southern states of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka in recent years.

Aid groups say more than 800 farmers committed suicide in Maharahstra this year alone.

The deaths came despite a US$815 million (euro640 million) aid package for six drought-hit districts announced by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during a visit earlier this year.

Singh described farmers' debts as a national problem.

The farmers are demanding complete debt forgiveness, a minimum price for crops such as cotton _ which has dropped in price from US$600 per ton to US$370 per ton over the last five years _ and subsidized electricity.

Source: Associated Press

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