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Marathas march in Mumbai, demand jobs and loan waiver

شعار Al Jazeera Al Jazeera 09/08/2017
Indian media estimated the number of people at the rally between 600,000 and about one million [Punit Paranjpe/AFP] © Provided by Al Jazeera Indian media estimated the number of people at the rally between 600,000 and about one million [Punit Paranjpe/AFP]

At least half a million protesters brought Mumbai, India's financial capital, to a standstill on Wednesday as they demanded set quotas in government jobs and colleges amid unemployment and reduced farm incomes.

Many businesses in the southern part of Mumbai were closed and traffic was diverted as the protesters descended on the bustling capital in a sea of saffron flags and banners.

It was the concluding protest of a series of 57 silent marches staged over the past year by the Maratha community, which is mainly dependent on farming.

Devendra Fadnavis, the chief minister of the western Indian state, met a delegation of Maratha Kranti Morcha or Maratha Revolutionary Front, and announced a slew of measures, including interest free loans and trainings for farmers.

He also promised to consider granting reservations to the Marathas.

Organisers put the number of protesters at more than two million and said it was the largest rally ever staged in the city of 20 million.

Indian media estimated the number of people at the rally between 600,000 and about one million.

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Demands for quotas for highly sought-after government jobs and university places have escalated as unemployment has risen and conditions in rural areas worsened.

"Farming is no longer profitable and jobs are not available," said one protester, Pradip Munde, a farmer from Osmanabad, a town more than 400km southeast of Mumbai.

"Reservation can ensure us better education and jobs."

Virendra Pawar, a spokesman for the Maratha Kranti Morcha, said that the protesters were also demanding higher prices for farm produce and loan waivers for poor farmers.

In June, the government in Maharashtra agreed to write off loans to farmers estimated to be worth nearly $5bn after 11 days of protests that strangled supplies to Mumbai.

Maharashtra is one of several largely agricultural Indian states that have suffered disappointing rains and crop failures in recent years.

More than 1,417 farmers killed themselves in Maharashtra in 2016, according to official figures.

India reserves places for lower castes, including the former untouchables, to try to bring victims of the country's worst discrimination into the mainstream, but in recent years other castes have demanded quota amid dwindling farm incomes.

Protesters dismissed as insufficient Fadnavis' proposal to consider granting reservations.

"We are not satisfied with the government's promises. The Chief Minister hasn't given any concrete assurances to solve farmers' problems," said Bhaiya Patil, one of the rally organisers.

Young people and senior citizens from the Maratha community waved saffron flags while more than 10,000 policemen helped to maintain order.

The city's famed 'dabbawalas', who deliver packed lunches to people working in offices across Mumbai, suspended operations for the day, as did schools in the affected area.

Two-thirds of India's population of 1.3 billion depend on farming for their livelihood, but the sector makes up just 14 percent of gross domestic product and there is a growing divide between the countryside and increasingly well-off cities.

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