New Delhi, India – Leaders of Indian farmers’ unions have held a day-long hunger strike to put pressure on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government to repeal a set of new farm laws passed recently.
Farmer leaders across India began their hunger strike at 8am (02:30 GMT) on Monday and ended it at 5pm (11:30GMT), as farmers intensified their agitation for the 19th day.
The new laws seek to deregulate India’s enormous agriculture sector by allowing farmers to sell their produce to private buyers beyond government-run wholesale markets, where farmers are assured a minimum price for their crops.
But the farmers say the laws threaten their livelihoods and will only benefit big corporations, leaving growers at the mercy of a free market.
“Today, we have given a call for protests in all the districts all over India. Main leaders belonging to different farmer organisations will observe fast as a means of protest against the new agriculture laws,” Darshan Pal, a farmer leader, told Al Jazeera, adding that if the government invited them again for talks, “we will consider it positively”.
This is the second time in two weeks the farmers have called for nationwide protests, asking people to hold sit-ins outside district offices across the country.
The protests are being spearheaded by thousands of farmers camping outside the Indian capital, New Delhi, and blocking several highways leading to the city.
Delhi state’s Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and his Aam Aadmi Party (Common Man’s Party) have extended support to the farmers by fasting with them on Monday.
Kejriwal urged his party’s supporters to join the agitation and urged Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to “shun arrogance” and agree to the demands of the farmers.
A BJP spokesperson refused to comment, saying the party has “advised” them not to talk to the media on the protests since the ministers are holding talks with the farmers’ representatives.
Last week, a group of opposition leaders including Congress leader Rahul Gandhi met India’s President Ram Nath Kovind and told him the laws should be revoked.
Laws amid pandemic crisis
Agriculture contributes nearly 15 percent to India’s $2.9-trillion economy and employs more than half of the country’s 1.4 billion people.
However, the sector has been facing a crisis, driving thousands of debt-ridden farmers to take their own lives in recent years.
Amid the coronavirus pandemic that has further disrupted the country’s economy, the right-wing BJP government passed the three farm laws in September.
Modi said the legislation was needed to boost the agriculture sector, and that the new laws would benefit the farmers and “liberate” them from the tyranny of middlemen.
But the farmers, mostly from Haryana and Punjab states – considered the “grain bowl” of India – have slammed the laws as “anti-farmer”.
Several rounds of talks between the farmers’ representatives and the government have failed.
The farmers demand complete revocation of the three laws and a Minimum Support Price (MSP) for their produce guaranteed by the government.
Last week, the government sent a written proposal to the farmers’ unions, laying out a series of amendments, including written assurances over MSP.
But the farmers rejected the offer. “The government’s proposal was just an eyewash,” said farmer leader Hanan Mullah.
“It’s been months now since the farmers started protesting against the three laws. We have sent several memorandums to the prime minister, agriculture minister showing our resentment to the farm laws but the government doesn’t care,” he said.
“What the government is offering to the farmers are cosmetic changes but those changes will not change the character of the law.”
The only way left for the farmers, Mullah said, is to continue their protests democratically and peacefully.
At Singhu border, the protesting farmers have erected tents, including one to hold prayers and another housing a library.
Several medical camps have been set up to provide free medical facilities to the protesting farmers, and dozens of free kitchens provide food.
The number of the protesters is only growing, with more and more people including elderly women joining them.
Karnail Kaur, 75, says she travelled over 320km (200) miles from Moga district in Punjab state to the Singhu border.
Her granddaughter, Ramandeep Kaur, who accompanied the elderly woman, told Al Jazeera that despite her old age and bad health, she refused to stay home and insisted on joining the protest.
“Unless and until Modi takes back these laws, we will not go back,” the elderly Kaur said. “Modi should know about the determination of Punjabi people.”
A few yards away sits Baljinder Kaur, 65, from Batala city in Punjab. She said many families protesting outside New Delhi have put locks on their houses.
“We understand what these laws can do to us. That is why we have come so far to protest,” she said. “We will return to our homes only when the laws are taken back.”