At least half a million protesters brought Mumbai, the financial capital of India, 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 city 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, responded with a promise to consider 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.
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,” one protester, Pradip Munde, a farmer from Osmanabad, a town more than 400km southeast of Mumbai, told Reuters news agency.
“Reservation can ensure us better education and jobs.”
Virendra Pawar, a spokesman for the Maratha Kranti Morcha or Maratha Revolutionary Front, said that the protesters were also demanding higher prices for farm produce and loan waivers for poor farmers.
In June, the government of Maharashtra state 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 quotas 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,” Bhaiya Patil, one of the rally organisers, told Reuters.
Fadnavis, after meeting a delegation of Maratha Kranti Morcha, also promised interest-free loans and training for farmers.
More than 10,000 policemen helped to maintain order during Wednesday’s rally.
Mumbai’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 prosperous cities.