Thousands of farmers in India blocked highways and rail tracks on Monday to give renewed momentum to their months-long demand for scrapping agricultural laws that have triggered the country’s longest farm protest and presented a political challenge to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The nationwide protest, or “bharat bandh,” was held on the first anniversary of the passage of the laws that the government says will modernize the agricultural sector, but which farmers fear will spell an existential threat to their livelihoods.
The legislation allows farmers to do business outside government-run wholesale markets where they have sold their crops for decades at guaranteed prices.
But farmers fear that opening up sales of farm produce to the corporate sector will end an era of assured prices for crops like rice and wheat. They say farmers in states such as Bihar where the system has been scrapped are already in distress and get a lower price for their crop.
Defiant farmers have camped on highways on the outskirts of New Delhi since November amid the persisting stalemate — the government has often said it is open to a dialogue but will not repeal the laws.
On Monday, thousands of farmers waving flags converged outside key roads leading to the Indian capital choking traffic. A farmer from Haryana, Sunil Kumar, who was among the protestors, said the stir demonstrated the farmers’ determination to continue their struggle has not ended.
Life was also disrupted in the northern states of Punjab and Haryana, lush rice and wheat growing states, that have been at the forefront of the protest.
The farmers stir also reverberated in the south of the country — they held protests in the southern cities of Chennai and Bengaluru and Kerala state. In some places they squatted on rail tracks.
Ahead of Monday’s protest, Rakesh Tikait, one of the farm leaders spearheading the stir, said that they are ready to protest for ten years, but will not allow the “black legislation” to be passed.
Several opposition parties including the Congress Party have supported the farmers’ demands. In a tweet, senior leader Rahul Gandhi called the government “exploitative” and extended support to farmers using hashtag #Istandwithfarmers.
The government maintains the laws will improve farm incomes and agricultural productivity. Prime Minister Narendra Modi called them a “watershed moment” for Indian agriculture when they were passed last year.
India’s agriculture has not kept pace with its economy shrinking to just 15% of gross domestic product over the decades. But nearly two thirds of the country, or some 800 million people, depend on agriculture for their livelihood as the country has not been able to generate enough non-farm-based jobs.
“The protest is a reflection of the compound anger they carry at the neglect of agriculture, especially farmers’ incomes which have become so low over the decades,” says agriculture economist Devinder Sharma. “The government believes that facilitating corporate entry would pull agriculture out of the crisis but that will not help because a majority of the farmers are small.”
The bulk of Indian farmers own plots of less than one hectare and fear that the laws will make them vulnerable to corporates that will drive down prices and force them to sell their land.
With the stalemate showing no signs of a resolution, the political impact of the farmers stir will be tested early next year when elections in India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, are held.
Farmers from the state that adjoins New Delhi are among those who have been at the forefront of the ten-month old agitation. They held a mammoth rally earlier this month and say they will step up protests across the state ahead of the polls to show that the government is pursuing what they call anti-farmer policies.