MANDSAUR – At least six Indian farmers have died after being shot dead during a protest in the central state of Madhya Pradesh.

It is unclear who opened fire during the rally in Mandsaur district on Tuesday. Protesters say it was police.

Farmers dumped vegetables and milk on the roads when the strike kicked off last week, demanding billions of dollars in debt forgiveness and better prices for their produce, The Hindu reported.

The prices of fresh produce have more than doubled in cities such as Mumbai, India’s main financial center and the capital of Maharashtra.

Two-thirds of India’s population of 1.3 billion depends on farming for their livelihood, but the sector makes up just 14 per cent of gross domestic product, reflecting a growing divide between the countryside and increasingly well-off cities.

Tension persisted in some parts of Madhya Pradesh, with a curfew imposed throughout the district of Mandsaur where the farmers died.

The outburst of discontent in India’s heartland farming states of Madhya Pradesh and neighbouring Maharashtra poses a challenge for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has promised to double farmers’ incomes over the next five years.

Agitated farmers torched four chartered buses in Dewas on Wednesday afternoon. However, the passengers managed to escape and run for their lives.

The incident took place at Nevri Chowk in Sonkatch. The bus was ferrying passengers from Indore to Bhopal when it was stopped by protesters. They first pelted stones at the bus and vandalized it using iron rods.

Later, they set the buses on fire.

Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan said he was “deeply pained by the turn of events”.

“I have already accepted all fair demands of the farmers,” he said.

Chouhan also announced that the state government would give compensation to the families of the victims, and pay medical expenses for the injured.