NEW DELHI - Several thousand farmers trooped into Delhi on Friday (Nov 27) to demand a repeal of new laws liberalising procurement of agricultural produce that they claim renders them vulnerable to private companies.
The farmers moved into the capital after the Indian government allowed them to do so, yielding to pressure from thousands who had amassed at the city's borders, where clashes with the police were reported.
Farmers from some northern Indian states, especially the key agrarian state of Punjab, have been making their way to the capital for the past week, braving tear gas, as well as water canon, and overcoming other obstacles that the authorities in Haryana, a state that borders Delhi, deployed on their route.
Dramatic visuals on social media showed farmers dislodging road barricades set up using shipping containers, sand-laden trucks, cement barriers as well as barbed wires. Even trenches were dug by the authorities in Haryana to prevent the protesters descending on the capital. Many of them were on tractors and trolleys, including some carrying essential supplies for their comrades.
The use of force to push back the farmers, especially water cannon amid the ongoing north Indian winter, prompted widespread criticism.
"Sheer arrogance and brute force is Delhi's response, attempt to murder peaceful democratic attempts to protest and protect livelihood," tweeted Ms Harsimrat Kaur Badal, a former federal minister from Punjab who resigned from the Cabinet in September to protest against the controversial reforms.
At least one farmer from Punjab was killed and two others injured in a road crash on Friday. As the protests gained momentum, the Delhi police even sought permission to use the city's stadiums as temporary jails - a request that was denied by the local state government. The farmers have now been allowed to stage their protest on the outskirts of the capital.
While the authorities used the Covid-19 pandemic as a reason not to allow the protest, farmers cited recent political rallies in the country to demand a similar exception.
Following legislative changes in September, farmers can now sell their produce anywhere, including to corporate buyers, instead of just at government-regulated wholesale markets, where they are assured of a safety net through a minimum support price (MSP).
The government says the reforms are necessary to increase agricultural income and productivity. But farmers argue the liberalised policy leaves them vulnerable to big companies which may eventually dictate prices. They also fear that the government could remove the MSP and say they will continue to protest until the reforms are rolled back.
In an interview with the Hindustan Times daily, federal Minister of Agriculture Narendra Singh Tomar said he could "neither say yes nor no" to the demand by farmers for a law to guarantee the MSP. He, however, added that the current procurement system under the MSP will continue. Mr Tomar has also invited farmer leaders for talks on Thursday and appealed to them not to agitate.
But this olive branch has failed to deter the ongoing protests. Ms Kavitha Kuruganti, a member of the coordination committee of the Samyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM) that is spearheading the ongoing protests, said the government has not shown "any seriousness" and failed to take note of previous protests across the country. "Only when the tide has become overwhelmingly large is the government responding," she told The Straits Times.
Talks so far between government and farmers' representatives have not yielded anything conclusive.
"It is not as though the government is blinking even partially on the Acts. All they are doing is defending them endlessly... Why will the farmers believe the government is serious about having a dialogue with them and listening to their concerns? That's why they have marched," Ms Kuruganti said.
The SKM wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Friday asking for "sincere discussions" on its demands to "repeal" all the controversial legislation.