In rural India, rumble of discontent grows. Drought and high prices drive farmers to launch protests

Across India's parched countryside, a rural revolt is budding. The farmers' protest, popularly known as ``peasant power,'' is a symptom of the growing economic ills bedeviling Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi's government. A three-year shortfall of vital monsoon rains has left this largely agricultural nation with strained food supplies and desperate water shortages.

Last month, thousands of farmers held a three-week sit-in at Meerut, 35 miles from here. With growing power and water shortages, mounting debt, and low prices, simmering discontent boiled over.

Prime Minister Gandhi refused to meet their demands. The farmers disbanded, but vowed not to pay taxes and to continue their fight. ``We shall disregard whatever this government says and conduct our business ourselves,'' Mahendra Singh Tikait, the revolt's self-styled leader, told crowds.

Public spending to counter the effects of drought has pushed the government into the red. Prices for food, gasoline, railroad tickets, and telephones have jumped. In contrast to the euphoria surrounding Mr. Gandhi's plans to revitalize India's ponderous economy three years ago, worry is growing.

``These price increases are crazy,'' says schoolteacher Reena Sewak about the country's double-digit inflation. ``They make you wonder if we're headed for a disaster instead of the 21st century.''

According to the World Bank, however, India's economy is well-managed and its $26 billion foreign debt is not out of control.

But warning signals are flashing, economic observers say. In its new budget released Monday, the government predicts the deficit for the coming fiscal year will jump by one-third to more than $6 billion. Defense spending is mounting due to the war against Tamil militants in Sri Lanka which is costing the Indian government an estimated $800,000 a day. The government plans to hike taxes to help cover the deficit.

Economic problems threaten to become political headaches if the summer monsoon rains fail again this year, economists say. About 75 percent of India's people live in rural areas, and one-third of national output comes from agriculture.

Last year, the government was able to tide over the summer's disaster by drawing on a 23-million-ton grain surplus. Since the 1960s, when India was haunted by famine and had to import mountains of food, the country has become self-sufficient, largely through ``Green Revolution'' technology.

But with food stocks dwindling, India may again have to import food if the dry spell continues. That could be a political disaster for Gandhi, who came to power in 1984 after his mother's assassination and faces fresh elections next year.

``If the economic crisis gets worse, the people won't be able to absorb it. We'll see political turmoil like that of the 1960s,'' says S.K. Ray, an economist who has written extensively about the country's droughts. ``If we have another drought and another bad year, this government is doomed.''

Indeed, farmers' ire has been rising in recent years as the cost of hybrid seeds, irrigation, and fertilizers - key components of the vaunted Green Revolution era - have outpaced the prices for crops.

Critics of the movement contend that the participants are rich farmers trying to win better subsidies and cheaper costs from the government. The farmers, who say they can't make ends meet during years of normal rainfall, contend they are under growing pressures from the drought.

Even harder hit are the farm laborers who are increasingly being forced off the land into the cities to find jobs.

Jabbar Singh, a 26-year-old worker, his wife, and children, left their native Rajasthan because there was no farm work.

``The livestock were dying, and there wasn't enough drinking water,'' said Mr. Singh who is looking for a construction job in New Delhi. ``I had to come here. There is nothing at home.''

Political observers say Gandhi will have to move quickly to stem the agrarian unrest. The prime minister, whose government has been buffeted by charges of corruption and a string of election defeats, must retain his hold on key states in the north where the farmers' movement is picking up steam.

``The stability of rural society keeps India going,'' says Jaswant Singh, a political opponent of the Gandhi government.

``Whenever that stability is disturbed, the whole country is touched by the chaos,'' Mr. Singh says.

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