India’s lockdown is hurting its crucial farming sector which employs about half of the country’s workforce.
New Delhi, India – Farmers in India have rejected a government offer of “conditional talks” and demanded the repeal of agricultural laws they say will benefit only private players, as thousands of protesters camped on the outskirts of the capital New Delhi for the fourth day.
An estimated 20,000 protesters have been blocking the Delhi-Haryana Highway at the Singhu border, demanding that the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi allow them to hold a sit-in in the centre of the capital city.
Another crossing connecting the state of Haryana – governed by Modi’s right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – and Delhi is also blocked by farmers, most of whom have travelled hundreds of kilometres from northern Punjab state by foot, tractors or back of trucks.
Holding flags and sticks, the farmers listen to their representatives and activists amid chants of slogans against Modi government: “Modi sarkaar murdabad” (Down with the Modi government), “Inquilab zindabad” (long live the revolution) and “Kaale kanoon wapas lo” (repeal the black laws).
The laws passed by India’s parliament in September have sparked concerns among the farming community over the edge they give corporations, but the government says private players will bring much-needed investment to an agriculture sector that has stagnated for decades.
The protesters have set up langars – free kitchens – at the Singhu borders, areas that have emerged as epicentres of the protests. Volunteers, men and women, served food, tea and fruit to the protesters.
On Monday, farmers held special prayers on the occasion of the Guru Nanak Jayanti, marking the 551st anniversary of the birth of Guru Nanak Dev – the founder of the Sikh religion.
The farmers have come prepared, with rations, vegetables and blankets in their trucks and tractors, proof that they are here for the long haul.
Hundreds of police and security forces carrying batons, shields and tear gas guns are also stationed at the protest site, with water cannon vehicles at standby.
Al Jazeera’s Elizabeth Puranam, reporting from New Delhi, said thousands of farmers from the northern states of Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand have organised a protest on another highway connecting the capital with Uttar Pradesh.
“The numbers here are just getting bigger and bigger with each passing day.
“These farmers say they would rather continue to block these highways and create as much disruption as possible until the government not just negotiates with them about these laws but also repeals these laws which they say will remove a minimum price for their produce.”
India’s Home Minister Amit Shah on Sunday urged farmers to shift the protest to a designated place, as his government offered to hold talks to address the farmers’ concerns.
But Jagjit Singh, a farmer leader, rejected the conditional offer during a press conference and said that Shah should have offered talks “with an open heart without any conditions”.
The farmers have refused to go to the designated venue and called it an “open jail”. They want to be given permission to protest at New Delhi’s Jantar Mantar or Ramlila Ground, two famous protesting sites located in the heart of the city.
“The government says that the laws are aimed at helping the farmers but we don’t want these laws. If we fear that these laws will take away our livelihood and ownership from our farms. Why is this government adamant on enforcing these laws on us. We haven’t demanded any of these laws,” said Gurmal Singh, a 42-year-old farmer from Ludhiana, Punjab.
“Why can’t this government scrap the laws and give us the old system. We are happy with that.”
The laws have especially angered the farmers in the states of Punjab and Haryana, the grain bowls of India.
Last week, thousands of farmers from Punjab and Haryana decided to march to the Indian capital to press their demands.
They marched with tractors, buses and on foot, defying tear gas, water cannon and baton charges from the police to reach the border of on Friday.
Exploitation by corporations
The government says the laws will allow farmers to sell their produce anywhere, including to big corporate buyers, instead of government-regulated wholesale markets where farmers are assured of a Minimum Support Price (MSP) – the price at which the government buys farm produce.
But the farmers say the laws could result in the government halting the purchase of grain at guaranteed prices, leaving them open to exploitation by corporations that would force prices down.
“These laws will destroy us,” said Subeg Singh, 60, a farmer from Binjal village of Patiala.
“The big corporates may give us better prices to our produce for the first two to three years but once the government regulated system and MSP is gone, they will call the shots.”
Modi, who in 2014 promised to double farm incomes by 2022, on Monday defended the laws during a public rally in his parliamentary constituency of Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh.
“The new agricultural laws have been brought in for benefit of the farmers. We will see and experience benefits of these new laws in the coming days,” he said, dismissing the farmers’ fears as misplaced.
Earlier on Sunday he defended the agriculture reforms in his monthly radio broadcast “Mann Ki Baat” (from the heart of the mind).
“These reforms have not only broken shackles of farmers but have also given new rights and opportunities for them. These rights started mitigating problems that were being faced by farmers in a short span of time,” he said during the radio broadcast.
His statement however, had little impact on the protesting farmers who are demanding that the government scrap the laws entirely.
“We reject these laws and want the government to simply revoke them,” said farmer leader Jagmohan Singh.
The BJP has said the farmers were misled by the opposition, particularly the Congress Party which governs Punjab.
But the farmers reject the allegations, saying there is an attempt being made to “discredit their genuine movement”.
“The ruling party says that we have been provoked by the opposition party, which is a big lie. We are protesting for our future, not for any political party,” said Kulwant Singh, a farmer from the Fatehgarh Sahib district of Punjab.