While India continues to fight the fierce fight against the COVID-19 infection, thousands of farmers on the outskirts of New Delhi are still occupying camps where they continue month-long protests against government law and order that they say hurt them.
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi seeks to force the repeal of reforms aimed at making agriculture more efficient, farmers are moving from village to village to harvest this year’s wheat, reflecting the organized nature of the movement.
The logistical feat is working, at least from the farmers’ point of view. They are on track to gather a record 109 million tonnes this year, posing more headaches for a government that some experts say underestimated the strength of rural anger.
To appease protesters, the state grain purchaser is likely to have to procure large quantities of wheat at guaranteed prices, trade sources said, eating into the budget and bloating already high stock levels.
“The government perhaps believed that the agitation would fizzle out as farmers left for harvesting, but they have come up with a smart strategy,” said Devinder Sharma, an independent farm and food policy expert.
“I think they are here for a long haul.”
A senior official involved in agricultural policymaking said the government had held several rounds of talks with farmers.
“The government is keen to sit with the farmers and address their grievances, but the farmers also need to come with an open mind,” said the official, who did not want to be named as he is not authorised to talk to the media.
Protest leader Amreek Singh has no doubt that protests can last as long as is necessary.
Referring to a stack of thick, beige-coloured registers, he explained how the number of demonstrators at his site had remained constant despite the departure of farmers to the village of Shahjanpur in grain-growing Haryana state.
Volunteers have prepared village rosters to ensure that every time a group of farmers goes to harvest the wheat crop, a group of similar size joins the protests, Singh told Reuters at Singhu, one of three protest camps on the outskirts of the capital.
Singh said there was a similar arrangement for Punjab and Uttar Pradesh states, also part of India’s grain belt.
At Singhu, organisers have pitched white tents and thatched cottages to house protesters over the summer, and communal kitchens have started stocking up traditional Indian syrups to help farmers stay hydrated.
One of the farmers on Singh’s roster is Rajendra Beniwal, who travelled to Shahjanpur, some 100 km (65 miles) north of Delhi, in mid-April to take part in the harvest. He aims to return to the protests as soon as the job is done.
“I have come along with 23 farmers from my village,” said the 55-year-old, sitting next to his 12-acre plot carpeted with golden wheat.
“Big wheat harvests have always been challenging logistically, but never has it been so frustrating. At the time of harvests, no one wants to stay away from their fields and their villages.”
PRESSURE ON STATE
Farmers began marching towards New Delhi in November to protest against three laws that give the private sector a greater role in buying, pricing and storing agricultural goods and reduce state protection enjoyed by growers for decades.
Modi, his government and some economists argue the laws are needed to modernise India’s agriculture, making it more efficient and attractive to private investment.
Three giant protest sites were erected along highways leading into Delhi, and marches into the city involving tens of thousands of people have sometimes ended in violent clashes with police.
As COVID-19 cases spiralled, Agriculture & Farmers Welfare Minister Narendra Singh Tomar asked farmers to call off their campaign to prevent outbreaks of the coronavirus at protest sites. But farmers say they will not budge until the government concedes to their demands. Find more.