Indian government to hold talks with farmers amid intensifying protests

Monitoring Desk

The government advanced talks with protesting farmers who have threatened to block entry points to the capital. The protests over controversial farm laws have entered the sixth day.

The Indian government has invited leaders of farm groups protesting newly enacted agricultural laws near the capital city of New Delhi for talks on Tuesday, two days before they were originally scheduled to take place.

The government, in a statement issued late Monday, announced the meeting was advanced due to the coronavirus pandemic and the extreme cold weather.

The government has already held two rounds of talks with the farmers with the last one held on November 13. “At that time too, we had urged them not to go for agitation and that the government is ready for talks,” Agriculture Minister Narendra Tomar said on Monday.

Tomar said that farmers had misconceptions about the farm laws and the government was committed to discussing the issue with their representatives without any preconditions.

This comes after the farmers rejected Home Minister Amit Shah’s offer to advance the date of talks in exchange for them moving their protest to a designated site on the outskirts of Delhi.

What’s the current situation?

The farmers’ protest, the biggest the country has seen in recent years, intensified over the last five days. Thousands of farmers have marched to the national capital, with many more trickling in, threatening to block five entry points to Delhi.

“Delhi Police has strengthened its presence at various border points in the wake of farmers protest. All internal (Delhi Police) and outside (paramilitary) forces have been mobilized to the maximum,” a senior police official was quoted as saying by Indian news website News 18.

Last week, hundreds of farmers clashed with police while trying to enter the capital. The police used tear gas and water cannon to try and stop protesters while the farmers used tractors to try to clear the barriers that police had constructed using concrete blocks, shipping containers, and horizontally parked trucks.

Gajjan Singh, one of the protesters from the northern state of Punjab, died on Monday night near the Delhi border after suffering a heart attack, New Delhi-based NDTV reported. Singh is the second protester to die since the farmers began their march last week. His health had deteriorated due to the cold weather.

What are the protests about?

In September, India’s parliament passed three controversial agriculture bills aimed at liberalizing the country’s farm sector. They were subsequently signed into law, sparking farmers’ protests across the country.

The government argued that the new laws will give freedom to farmers to sell their produce outside regulated markets and enter into contracts with buyers at a pre-agreed price.

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) insists that the laws will fetch better prices and free farmers from traditional middlemen who dominate the trade. The government hopes that its new policy will double farmers’ income by 2022.

Farmers’ associations say the legislation does not guarantee the acquisition of farm produce at the minimum support price (MSP), thus leaving them at the mercy of corporations that are now expected to enter the country’s troubled farming sector.

“We are fighting for our rights. We won’t rest until we reach the capital and force the government to abolish these black laws,” said Majhinder Singh Dhaliwal, a farmer leader.

Opposition parties and some allies of Prime Minister Narendra Modi have called the laws anti-farmer and pro-corporation and called on the government to accept the farmers’ demand to roll back the laws.

Indian farmers in Punjab sitting on train tracks
Weeks of protest under the sun
The thin cloth does little to block the hot sun, but these farmers have come out every day for weeks demanding the repeal of farming laws. Delhi says the laws “free” farmers from restrictions allowing them to sell more. However, the farmers say they never faced any legal limits on selling produce and accuse the government of bowing to pressure from big corporations and selling out poor farmers.
Farmers in Punjab walk next to train tracks
Corporate takeovers?
India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) recently passed three reforms to agricultural law it says will free up agricultural markets and allow farmers the freedom to market their produce. Opponents say the reforms allow large agricultural companies more access to the market, which could choke off small-scale farmers.
Farmers sit under a tent on train tracks
A minimum price for crops
Farmers’ associations say the legislation does not safeguard small farmers’ access to so-called minimum support price (MSP), which is set by the government of India to ensure that a crop is sold at a minimum price. They say the laws could allow larger corporations to undersell small farmers.
Farmers protest India's BJP
Local BJP leaders under pressure
Although the ruling BJP government says the MSP will not be affected, farmers’ unions argue the new legislation will allow big companies to take over regardless. In protest, farmers have been sitting outside the homes of local BJP leaders for weeks now. The BJP has also been driven out of villages, which depend almost entirely on farming.
A group of protesters wave flags
Farmers are not a political tool
India’s opposition parties have taken out massive rallies to support the farmers’ cause, and detractors say the farmers are being mobilized for political gains. However, the leaders of the farmers’ movement said political parties are forbidden from speaking at their protests. No flags of any political party are allowed at the sit-ins.
A group outside a government building in Punjab
Politics in Punjab still affected
Even if the farmers do not overtly advocate political parties, their protests are making waves in government. The BJP’s longstanding ally in Punjab, Akali Dal, quit the alliance over the protests fearing a loss of Punjabi votes.
Farmers eating in a circle
An agricultural community
These protesting farmers start and end their days together. Copies of the laws are translated into Punjabi, the local language, and information sessions are organized. A local Sikh temple has set up a community kitchen that feeds all the protesters. Here they eat sitting together in a nearby field.
A man sits alone next to a wall
A matter of pride, and survival
An average farmer in Punjab owns between 1-2 hectares of land. While their income isn’t high, a landowning farmer can sustain a family. In a country where nearly 60% of the population struggles with poverty, these farmers see their land as the only asset that will ensure future generations can make a living. Two-thirds of India’s 1.3 billion people depend on farming.
Punjabi men on a truck
A hard day’s work under the sun
Despite little coverage from national media, these men leave their homes each day dressed well, wearing a white “kurta-pajama” outfit and a colorful turban. In the sweltering heat, it is time for them to harvest their crop. Some members of the family work on the fields, while others come out to join the demonstration.
Empty mats on a train track
Little hope for change
Farmers’ unions say the government has no interest in hearing their demands. Farmers are accused of “not reading the bills”, “not understanding economics”, “being stuck in the past,” and being “political pawns.” These farmers say they don’t know how long they will stay on the railway tracks. They keep showing up every day, because if they don’t, no one else will speak for them, they say.
Author: Seerat Chabba (Amritsar, Punjab)

Courtesy: DW

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