Farmers threaten Delhi blockade in protest of agriculture reforms

Last Modified Saturday, 5 December 2020 (12:17 IST)
Tens of thousands of have said they will besiege Delhi if PM Modi's government doesn't meet their demands to repeal the recent farm market reforms. They say they're ready for a long, but peaceful, demonstration.
Thousands of farmers were met by police and tear gas as they descended upon India's capital this week, demanding a rollback of three controversial farm laws passed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government in September.
Delhi security forces have since retreated behind massive barricades, leaving the farmers to set up camp along multiple entry points leading to the capital. A majority of these farmers are now camped at Delhi's Singhu border with Haryana state.
Hundreds of tractors have been parked here in a line stretching kilometers, which provide improvised shelter to these farmers. Groups wrap themselves in blankets to sleep inside the trailers. Those who don't find space lay thin mattresses under the vehicles. The nights are cold but that hasn't deterred the farmers' spirit.
Here to stay
Lakhwinder Singh, a protester, wakes up early in the morning to bathe before praying. Supporters of the farmers' movement have installed portable toilets near the protest site. Singh steps out wearing clean kurta-pajamas, which he washed the day before. He uses the rear view mirror of a tractor to tie his turban.
Finally, he walks to a common meeting area near the police barricades, where large numbers of protesters and farm leaders meet to consider their plans moving forward.
"We came fully prepared," he told DW. "We brought rations, water and all essentials to stay for six months."
However, the farmers have not anticipated the level of local support that they are now receiving. "The people of Delhi have been exceptionally warm. They came out to the streets to feed us. They made sure that we didn't have to open our own rations," Singh said.
Long fight for livelihood
In September, India's Parliament passed three controversial bills aimed at liberalizing the country's farm sector.
The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government argued that the new laws would usher in a new era, in which farmers would have the freedom to sell their produce outside regulated markets anywhere in the country. They could also enter into contracts with unlicensed buyers at a pre-agreed price.
However, the farmers argue that they always had the freedom to sell anywhere in the country. Instead, they say the government is shying away from its responsibility to ensure farm produce is sold at the minimum support price (MSP).
Farmers say the new laws leave them at the mercy of corporations, which can now enter India's farming sector with no government safeguards in place.
The were originally centered on the northern states of Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, where farmers now receive a minimum support price (MSP) for their wheat and rice.
But the movement now encompasses 500 farmers' unions across multiple states — Gujarat, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Chhatisgarh — in calling for the repeal of the laws.
Farmers feel ignored
"We are all for constructive dialogue with the government," said Sukhwinder Singh Sabhra, a leader from the Kisan Mazdoor Sangharsh Committee, one of the 30-plus unions and outfits representing the farmers in talks.
"But each time we are invited for a meeting, the government spends more time telling us how this legislation will be beneficial for the country, and less on the very real grievances we put forward."
Farmers have had three rounds of talks with ministers and government representatives, one stretching over seven hours, with no conclusive results.
"We are giving the government two options: repeal all three anti-farmer laws, or introduce a fourth one that guarantees the MSP on not just wheat and rice, but 23 crops, including cereals, seeds, pulses and sugarcane."
"If a buyer attempts to purchase the crop at a price lower than the government's MSP, he should be taken to court and fined."
The acts, in their current form, do not allow the farmers to take the purchasing party to court. All disagreements are settled by government officials.
State's reaction
On their way to Delhi last week, hundreds of farmers clashed with police while trying to enter the capital. The police used tear gas and water cannon to try and stop protesters while the farmers used tractors to try to clear the barriers that police had set up using concrete blocks, shipping containers, and horizontally parked trucks.
They were eventually allowed to enter the city on the condition that they moved to a large open ground in northern Delhi.
While some groups continued to the ground, others resisted. They argue that moving all protesters to the ground will allow security forces to surround them from all sides, leaving their voices unheard.
There is some precedent for this. For months, the same farmers sat along highways and outside the homes of local BJP leaders to voice their discontent. After they were ignored for nearly three months, they decided to march to Delhi.
Indian Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar said the government "has no ego" and wants to resolve all issues as soon as possible.
PM Modi, meanwhile, has lashed out at opposition parties for misleading farmers.
Protest is about farmers, not politics
Farmers at Singhu say they are out on the streets as no political party understands the measures better than the men and women who toil in the sun.
"We belong to no party but different political forces are trying to use us to their benefit," said Singh. "All of them bow to their corporate masters in this scheme to impoverish farmers and workers."
Instead, the farmers have vowed to fight till the government reaches a solution that suits all stakeholders. They say they have enough food to sustain themselves, blankets to keep their bodies warm, and the spirit of unity to overcome any challenge that comes their way.
"Farmers are inherently selfless," he explains. "If they chose to produce just enough to feed themselves, the rest of the country would go hungry. We cannot live with that."
A farmer from Madhya Pradesh chimed in, "Long live farmer unity!"