MUMBAI, June 9 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The killing of five farmers in clashes with police in central India exposes the plight of landless peasants struggling to pay back debt with meagre earnings from lower produce prices, activists say.
Low prices for produce such as lentils and cereals amid a glut in supply have triggered protests by farmers in central Madhya Pradesh state and neighbouring Maharashtra, where officials have said they will waive loans of some defaulting farmers.
But the waivers will only benefit farmers who own land and do not address the main reasons for farmers' distress including landlessness and the small size of holdings, said Kishor Tiwari, head of a committee set up by the Maharashtra government to address farmers' issues.
"Lease holders who cultivate others' land cannot avail of debt waivers, and they will continue to suffer until the government tackles reform of the farm economy," he said.
"The state must find a way to determine who the real cultivator is, and see that they get relief."
The five farmers shot dead in Madhya Pradesh when police opened fire to disperse a protest did not own the land they cultivated, the Indian Express daily reported on Friday.
About two-thirds of India's 1.3 billion people depend directly or indirectly on farming for their livelihoods.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has promised to double farmers' incomes over the next five years with a slew of policies.
Over the past decade, tens of thousands of farmers have killed themselves across the country, with "bankruptcy or indebtedness" cited as the main reason in official data.
Most of these farmers were tenants who did not own the farmland, and therefore did not qualify for benefits such as subsidised loans or crop insurance, said Raghu Pillai, head of the land and livelihood hub at advocacy group ActionAid India.
"Tenant farmers are not even recognised as farmers, and because they don't have the title to the land, they cannot get anything - not even compensation when they are dead," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"We need changes in the tenant law to give them recognition and benefits."
Several Indian states, including Madhya Pradesh, are adopting a model land leasing law aimed at giving tenant farmers greater access to benefits such as credit, but the move is opposed by landowners who say it jeopardises their rights.