Six protesters were killed in the Mandsaur district of Madhya Pradesh in June. Meet the bereaved families driven to desperation by erratic weather and a tough market

Dinesh Kumar and his wife Alka Patidar with a memorial portrait of their son Abhishek Patidar, who was killed when police fired on a protest in Mandsaur on June 6, 2017. He was 17 years old (Photo: Huizhong Wu)

Abhishek Patidar was 17 years old when he died. A farmer’s son, he had planned on becoming a doctor.

“Abhishek studied in the 11th grade,” said his mother Alka Patidar, proudly. Her eldest son had only finished 8th grade before he started working the family farm.

Abhishek, the youngest of four children, looks like his mother. His eyes follow the same curvature; his skin is the same shade of tan. Abhishek was killed at a protest on 6 June, 2017, when Indian police opened fire on the crowd.

India’s farmers are in crisis. Their frustrations, simmering quietly after the harvest, became palpable in a 10-day long protest in June. Thousands of farmers in the Mandsaur district of central India’s Madhya Pradesh had turned up in the towns of Piplia Mandi and Bahi Phanta to demand fair prices for a season’s worth of work. Abhishek went along with several other young men from his village.

The protests started out peacefully, but turned ugly a few days in, when a scuffle broke out between better-off business owners in the area and debt-ridden farmers. On the sixth day, the violence climaxed when police, trying to control the crowd, fired their weapons. Five protesters were killed on the spot and a sixth man later died of injuries sustained in the clash.

Almost immediately, the district was put on lockdown, with police enforcing a curfew and shutting off internet services in the area. In an attempt to prevent further unrest, the state government has promised to purchase the year’s crops at a higher price than farmers would get on the open market.

A month after 6 June, farmers again took to the streets to remember the six deceased. Local officials forbade the gathering to be held in the village where the five farmers were killed, out of worry that it would again stir up violence.

For now, the villages in Mandsaur district are quiet, but anger lingers in the aftermath of the protest.

Protesters set passing trucks and buses on fire. Their burnt-out frames litter the highway (Pic: Huizhong Wu)

2017 proved brutal for India’s small farmers. Many had breathed a sigh of relief at a successful harvest after two years of drought and unseasonal weather. In fact, the 2016 monsoon was good enough that there was a bumper crop.

The result, however, was a glut of produce that depressed prices. Crops like onions were selling for as little as one rupee per kilogram ($0.01).

“The price that we were getting has been cut in half, the price of soya bean as well as fenugreek dropped,” said Unkar Singh, a farmer from Mandsaur, whose son had participated in the protests. “At the same time, the cost of compost, electricity and labour is increasing. The cost of farming is more than what we earn.”

It was this that made Madhya Pradesh’s farmers take to the streets.

Size has a lot do with the Indian farmer’s financial problems. About one third of India’s 90 million farming households own less than 0.4 hectares or an acre of land. An average small family farm in the US, for comparison, is 231 acres. On this scale, a farmer makes just enough money to survive. A national survey found that the average monthly income for an agricultural household was 6,426 rupees ($98) in 2012 and the average consumption expenditure was 6,223 rupees ($95).

Most small-time farmers do not earn enough and do not have enough cash flow, said Harish Damodaran, the rural affairs editor at The Indian Express, a national newspaper. That balance could easily be upset by the smallest change in their livelihoods, like unseasonal rains or a drop in…