More than 1,500 telephone towers have been vandalised in the northern Indian state of Punjab where farmers have taken the lead in an increasingly angry campaign against government agriculture reforms, officials said.
The action came as tens of thousands of farmers marked more than a month of protests on main roads leading into the capital, New Delhi, against new farms bills passed in September.
Farmer leaders say the new laws will lead to a takeover of the agriculture business by companies and have called for a boycott of groups such as Reliance, which owns the telecom towers, and Adani – a big player in agri-business – the two firms farmers believe have profited from the new laws at their expense.
They also fear that the government will gradually withdraw the Minimum Support Price – the price at which the government buys agricultural produce.
Farm union leaders have however, denied any role in the action against the telecom towers in Punjab state, India’s agricultural heartland and known as “the grain bowl of India”.
The towers had power supplies and fibre cables cut while some had their generators stolen, officials said.
A source close to Jio, Reliance’s mobile phone enterprise, said more than 1,400 towers had been vandalised up to Sunday. A telecoms industry official said at least 150 more were damaged on Monday.
Videos showing Jio employees being chased from towers have been widely shared on social media.
The office of Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh said that more than 1,500 communication masts had been damaged or their power supply cut off in the past few days.
The “use of violence could alienate the protesters from the masses, which would be detrimental to the interests of the farming community”, Singh said in the statement.
Boycott calls heeded
Reliance, which is owned by Asia’s richest person, Mukesh Ambani, has not commented on the vandalism. But mobile phone services have been affected in Punjab which has 9,000 towers in all.
Protesters have also blockaded one of Punjab’s biggest cooking oil depots owned by Adani subsidiary Fortune in the Punjab city of Amritsar.
Davinder Singh, a farmer who took part in a protest in Amritsar on Monday, told the AFP news agency the boycott calls were being increasingly followed.
“We are with our farmer brothers who are protesting at the Delhi borders. We appealed to the people to boycott Jio and Adani.
“People have heard us. Many people have cut their Jio connections,” he said.
Farmers have taken over several kilometers of key roads leading into New Delhi, demanding that the government repeal the new laws but the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi insists they are aimed at bringing investment in moribund agriculture sector beset by low productivity.
The government says the new changes, which will allow farmers to sell produce in free markets, help boost farm income in a sector whose contribution to the gross domestic product (GDP) has gradually been declining over the years.
India’s agriculture sector employs more than half of India’s 1.4 billion people but contributes only 15 percent to the country’s $2.7 trillion economy. The sector has been facing a crisis, driving thousands of debt-ridden farmers to take their own lives.
Farmers say the three farm laws passed by right-wing Modi government will hurt their livelihoods and will only benefit large corporations.
A new round of talks between union leaders and the government is to be held on Wednesday. But protesters have promised to step up their action if there is no breakthrough.