Huge protest rally disrupts traffic in Mumbai

MUMBAI (Reuters) - At least half a million protesters brought Mumbai, India’s financial capital, to a standstill on Wednesday as they pressed their demands for reserved quotas in government jobs and college places amid a slumping rural economy.

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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.

Rising unemployment and falling farm incomes are driving farming communities across India, from the state of Haryana in the north to Gujarat in the west, to redouble their calls for reservations in jobs and education.

“Farming is no longer profitable and jobs are not available,” said one protester, Pradip Munde, a farmer from Osmanabad, a town more than 400 km (250 miles) southeast of Mumbai. “Reservation can ensure us better education and jobs.”

Protesters dismissed as insufficient a proposal by the chief minister of Maharashtra state, Devendra Fadnavis, to consider granting reservations to the Maratha community, which is mainly dependent on farming.

“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.

The protest rally seriously disrupted road and rail traffic in Mumbai and a city park where protesters gathered could not accommodate all those trying to enter, but police said there was no violence.

“Many people couldn’t enter the (park) venue as it was packed. We had made arrangements for 2 million people, but we ran out of supplies,” said Patil.

Young people and senior citizens of western India’s 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.

Wednesday’s rally was the concluding protest of a series of 57 marches staged over the past year in Maharashtra by the Maratha community to press its demands.

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.

Additional Reporting by Radhika Bajaj; Writing by Swati Bhat; Editing by Gareth Jones