"I want to assure you that both the Maharashtra government and the federal government will jointly find a solution to all problems with all sincerity," Manmohan Singh told farmers in the badly-hit Vidarbha region of western Maharashtra state on Friday.

"I am aware of your problems. I can understand the pain and anguish you have gone through," Singh said at the start of a two-day visit to Vidarbha.

Later in the day, he listened, notebook in hand, to debt-ridden families of farmers who had ended their lives.

"We are unable to repay the loans we have taken from private money-lenders and co-operative banks," one farmer told Singh as others complained of haphazard distribution of state handouts

Some trekked from the impoverished district of Amravati where 800,000 farmers are debt-ridden and where 700 suicides have been recorded in the past five years, officials accompanying Singh said.

"The prime minister was told that farmers were driven to suicide because of the failure of monsoon [rains] and factors like defaulting on loan payments, the evils of the money-lending system and low quality seeds," one official said.

Relief package

Singh was expected to unveil a relief package of 40 billion rupees ($865 million) on Saturday aimed at waiving off loans,  improving irrigation and encouraging diversified farming.

"I want to assure you that both the Maharashtra government and the federal government will jointly find a solution to all problems with all sincerity"

Manmohan Singh,
India's prime minister

Alluding to the package but without giving details, the prime minister told farmers it would address several problems associated with the agricultural crisis.

"I heard that irrigation means are not available. We will  announce a package to improve the situation," he told the farmers.

"I also heard that there should be alternative livelihoods. The  package will also take care of that."

He said that he was confident that the situation in the region  would improve, but it would take time.

Singh said the administration would also look at problems such as the lack of health facilities.

Mounting suicides

Federal government officials say more than 8,900 farmers have committed suicide since 2001 in four states hardest hit by the  ongoing agricultural crisis, including 980 in Maharashtra.

The number has been dismissed as far too low by activists and, according to a state government-backed report, more than 4,100 farmers ended their lives in Maharashtra in 2004 alone.

Federal government figures say that close to a million farmers committed suicide between 1995 and 2003 nationwide.

Rights activists say farmers are being driven to the wall by  mounting debts - loan sharks demand up to 120% annual  interest - failed harvests and the tumbling price of cotton, the region's main crop.

Agriculture provides jobs for about 60% of the country's workforce and accounts for a quarter of India's GDP.