India Farmers' Protest: Why Tens of Thousands Are Camped Out in New Delhi

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What is the reason behind India's farmers' protest as tens of thousands vow to camp outside the capital of New Delhi for months? The farmers -- mostly from Punjab, often called India’s bread-basket -- want Prime Minister Narendra Modi to repeal three agricultural laws passed in September that allow them to sell crops directly to private firms instead of licensed middlemen at state-controlled markets. While Modi has said the laws will help them earn more cash, farmers fear those companies won’t give them minimum prices set by the government.

“Modi has joined hands with private companies -- he is trying to grab our land through private firms,” said Sukhvinder Kaur, 65, who joined the protest along with 10 other women from her village in Punjab state, about 500 kilometers (310 miles) away. Braving Delhi’s cold winter, the women sleep on a truck bed, bathe on the side of the road and eat food at a makeshift community kitchen.

“We are not ready to go back home unless these laws are scrapped,” Kaur said. “We are ready to sacrifice our lives -- even ready to die.”

The protest sites on the Delhi border that popped up about a week ago have turned into semi-permanent camps featuring almost a festive atmosphere, with some leaders saying they have enough supplies to stay put for six months. Tractor-trolleys loaded with blankets, mattresses, vegetables, gas cylinders and utensils showed they’ve come prepared for the long haul.

The sheer determination of the protesters may test Modi’s reform credentials like never before. While his popularity has withstood one of the world’s worst Covid-19 outbreaks and demonstrations earlier this year against a religion-based citizenship law, the farmers represent potentially a huge constituency: Some 60% of India’s billion depend on agriculture in one way or another.

What’s more, some members of India’s large diaspora have taken up the cause. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau angered India’s government when he backed the protesters after police initially used tear gas and water cannons to prevent them advancing into Delhi. This week a convoy of about 20 vehicles slowly lapped Australia’s national capital Canberra with signs saying “We support Indian farmers” and “No farmers, no food.”

Modi has stood his ground, using a monthly radio address on Nov. 29 to say the laws gave farmers “new rights and new opportunities” -- including a provision that called for disputes over payment to be settled within a month. He listed examples of farmers who benefited from the law and also reached out to the Sikh community, which is the largest religious group in Punjab.

With a solid majority in parliament and national elections not due until 2024, Modi’s immediate risk is limited. So far the protest is mainly contained to farmers in Punjab, which is controlled by the opposition Congress party, and Haryana, which is ruled by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party. But the opposition is looking to pounce by labeling the government as anti-poor.

“When you play a card that is high stakes like the farmers’ laws, it can very well backfire,” said Rahul Verma, a researcher at the Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research who has written a book about ideology in Indian politics. “If this one spreads to rural areas, it has a cost.”

Several experts and economists say the new measures have the potential to modernize Indian agriculture, which has been hampered by low yields and inefficient smallholdings. Yet it will take years before private investment comes in and creates supply chains that will better align producers with consumer demand, according to Ashok Gulati, an agriculture economist at the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations.

“If the government goes back on this reform, Modi’s credibility will be over,” Gulati said, adding that it would be like “rolling back” the measures that opened India’s economy in 1991. “Even then, so many had opposed the move.”

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