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Indian Farmers Clash with Police as They Protest New Laws

A policeman chases away a farmer during a protest against the newly passed farm bills at Singhu border near Delhi, India, Nov. 27, 2020.

Police fired tear gas and used water cannons Friday as thousands of farmers from northern India marched to protest new laws that the government says will revolutionize the farm sector but which farmers fear will expose them to exploitation by big corporations.

Scuffles erupted on the outskirts of New Delhi as angry farmers pressed against heavily guarded concrete barricades set up along the city's border to stop the marchers. Waving flags and shouting slogans, some tried to remove the barriers.

Many farmers have traveled on their tractors and motorcycles from the northern farming state of Punjab, vowing to camp in the Indian capital until the government amends the recent laws.

It was the second day that farmers clashed with police. On Thursday security personnel used water cannons on farmers as they traveled through neighboring Haryana state to reach Delhi.

Hours after the farmers demanded to know why they were not being allowed to protest, police announced that they would be allowed to enter the city.

Criticizing the use of what he called "brute force," Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh said the government should initiate "immediate talks to address farmers' concerns on the farm laws and resolve the simmering issue."

The contentious legislation, passed in September, aims to reform decades-old laws under which farmers mostly sell their produce through state-run wholesale markets at prices set by the government and paves the way for them to sell their produce to private companies.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has described the new laws as "historic" and said they will increase farmers' incomes, boost productivity and liberate farmers from dependence on middlemen. Supporters of the legislation say it could draw in private investment and help modernize Indian agriculture.

Farmers protest against the newly passed farm bills at Singhu border near Delhi, India, Nov. 27, 2020.
Farmers protest against the newly passed farm bills at Singhu border near Delhi, India, Nov. 27, 2020.

However, Indian farmers, who have long been protected from the free market, fear that the removal of government controls will leave them with little bargaining power with large corporations and force them to sell their produce at cheaper prices. While they have been demanding better prices for their crops, they worry that the new laws will further depress rural incomes.

Nearly half of India's population depends on agriculture, but it accounts for just 17% of India's gross domestic product. Most of the farmers own small plots of land, have tiny incomes and are often in debt.

Food and farm policy analyst, Devinder Sharma said the scale of the protests shows that farmers are "not in tune" with the government's plans.

"At no stage were the farmers of India consulted about it," Sharma said.

"The result," he said, "is that it is industry and markets who are excited about it, while the farmers are convinced it will be detrimental to them."

The farmers say they will continue their protest until the government rolls back the reforms. Many have come prepared for a long haul with their vehicles stacked with provisions and even cooking gas cylinders.