Angry farmers choke India’s capital in giant demonstrations
By Jeffrey Gettelman, Karan Deep Singh and Hari Kumar
Mewa Singh said he wasn’t going anywhere.
On Monday afternoon, Singh, who farms a small plot of land in northern India, sat in the back of a mud-splattered farm trailer, heaps of rice, lentils, fresh garlic and other spices piled around him, blocking one of the main arteries into India’s capital.
Part of an army of thousands of angry farmers who have encircled New Delhi, Singh vowed to keep protesting for however long it takes for India’s government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, to reverse recently passed pro-market agricultural policies.
“Our land is our mother,” said Singh, growing emotional as he talked about the new policies, which he saw as part of an effort to hand farmers’ land over to big business. “It was passed on to us from our parents, who got it from their parents, and now Modi wants to acquire it and give it away to his rich friends.”
Even though Modi’s political party firmly controls the government, the growing farmers’ rebellion seems to have rattled his administration. In India, more than 60% of the population depends on agriculture to make a living. Farmers are a huge political constituency.
On Sunday, Modi’s top lieutenants hastily called a late-night meeting, and they have told the farmers that they were willing to negotiate.
But the crisis, which has snarled traffic leading into New Delhi for miles and cast a sense of uncertainty over the capital, has become a classic standoff of who lays down their arms first.
The Modi administration has indicated that it will not talk to the protesting farmers unless they move to a fairground on New Delhi’s outskirts and stop blocking the highways.
But the farmers have said that they will not move their tractors or trailers until negotiations start. They are digging in, resupplying themselves with food, fuel, firewood and medical supplies to stay put for weeks.
“Now we have leverage,” said Ramandeep Singh Mann, a farmers’ rights activist, who gazed across the protest zone Monday afternoon with a look of pride. “If we go to those fairgrounds, we will lose it.”
Many of the farmers, like Singh and Mann, hail from Punjab state, and they’re so furious at Modi that they have spent the past four days chugging hundreds of miles across northern India in their tractors, pulling concrete police barriers out of their way, weathering tear gas and water cannons, and curling up in blankets during the cold nights in the back of their trailers parked end to end for several miles.
The border of New Delhi and the neighboring state of Haryana, where countless motorists flow through every day, now resembles a siege.
Many farmers said the new rules, which the Modi administration pushed through Parliament in September, are the beginning of the end of a decades-old system that had guaranteed minimum prices for certain crops. They allow farmers greater freedom to sell their produce outside state-controlled agricultural markets, but they also curtail farmers’ ability to challenge disputes in courts.
While the Modi administration has said that India’s farm policies need to be reformed to attract more investment, farmers say they were never consulted on the changes.
Several who were interviewed Monday spoke of their fear of being swallowed up by corporate titans such as Mukesh D. Ambani, India’s richest man, and Gautam Adani, who is not far behind, both known to be close to Modi.
Modi has tried to calm things down, saying in a radio address Sunday that the new policies “opened the doors to new possibilities” for farmers.
Farmers have been opposed to the changes from the very beginning. They see the laws as an attack on their identity and a means to fundamentally alter the way they have been farming for generations. The first protests started in July, in Haryana and in Punjab.
Many economists and agricultural experts support the farmers’ demand for a minimum assured price for their crops.
“There is no evidence in the world where the market price has benefited farmers,” said Devinder Sharma, an independent agricultural expert and author based in the northern city of Chandigarh.
On Monday, squads of riot police and paramilitary officers carrying assault rifles huddled behind barricades on the Delhi side of the border, but their orders were not to intervene, for the moment. They simply sat on a road divider, watching the crowd build.
The farmers’ original plan had been to march on the center of New Delhi, the seat of Modi’s power, and many seemed disappointed that they had been prevented from doing that.
“When we started our march, we felt we were going to our capital,” said Amrinder Singh, a young farmer who was wearing an Adidas tracksuit. “But they treated us like terrorists.”
Mewa Singh, 57, had traveled to Delhi in the back of a bumpy trailer along with two dozen men from his village in Punjab. They all insisted that they were just trying to exercise their democratic voice.
“I’m not going to say this isn’t tough; it is tough,” Singh said.
The nights were cold, he said, and he was losing money every day by not working on his small wheat farm.
“But if a child doesn’t cry,” he said, “how will his mother know he’s hungry?”