Indian farmers launch nationwide highway blockade

Tens of thousands of farmers are demonstrating against laws they say benefit large private buyers at their expense.

People march in a farmers' protest at Bhainswal in Shamli district in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh [Danish Siddiqui/Reuters]

Tens of thousands of protesting Indian farmers have blockaded highways across the country as the United Nations called on authorities and protesters to exercise “maximum restraint”.

The farmers held a three-hour “chakka jam”, or road blockade, on Saturday at about noon local time (06:30 GMT) across the nation except in the capital New Delhi and a couple of neighbouring states.

“Today, the support of the whole society is with farmers,” Yogendra Yadav, a political activist who is one of the leaders of the farmers’ movement, said on Twitter. “Victory is certain.”

On a highway near the capital, some farmers smoked hookah as songs played on a loudspeaker.

Farmers squatted on the road in the eastern state of Odisha and Karnataka in the south with flags and banners protesting against the laws, with some carrying placards urging the government not to treat them as enemies.

Authorities deployed thousands of security forces mainly outside India’s capital, where farmers have camped at three main sites for more than two months seeking a repeal of new agricultural laws. They say they will not leave until the government rolls back the laws it says are necessary to modernise Indian agriculture.

“The rights to peaceful assembly & expression should be protected both offline & online,” the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said on Twitter late on Friday.

“It’s crucial to find equitable solutions with due respect to #HumanRights for all.”

Several rounds of talks between farmers and the government have failed to produce any breakthroughs. The farmers say the laws will leave them poorer and at the mercy of corporations.

Their action is a big challenge to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

On Friday, agriculture minister Narendra Singh Tomar defended the laws in Parliament, dampening hopes of a quick settlement as he made no new offer to resume talks with the farmers.

The largely peaceful rally turned violent on January 26, India’s Republic Day, when a group of farmers driving tractors veered from the protest route and stormed the 17th-century Red Fort.

Hundreds of police officers were injured and a protester died. Many farmers were also hurt but officials have not given official numbers.

Farmer leaders condemned the violence but said they would not call off the protest.

Since then, authorities have heavily increased security at protest sites outside New Delhi’s border, adding iron spikes and steel barricades to stop the farmers from entering the capital.

Much-needed investment

While the protests were initiated by rice and wheat growers from northern India, particularly opposition-governed Punjab state, support has been growing across the country.

The issue has also caught international attention with celebrities such as pop star Rihanna and environment campaigner Greta Thunberg announcing their support for the farmers.

The United States has also urged India to resume talks with farmers.

Modi’s government has held multiple rounds of talks with farmer representatives but failed to resolve their differences.

The government says the reforms will bring much-needed investment to the farm sector, which accounts for nearly 15 percent of India’s $2.9 trillion economy and about half its workforce.

Source: News Agencies