NEW DELHI, Sept 29 — Indian farmers remain adamant about continuing their months-long campaign against the country’s three new agricultural laws they say threaten their livelihoods.
Farmer groups say the laws, enacted a year ago, will deregulate the agriculture sector and enable large corporations to control commodity procurement prices, unlike the state-regulated wholesale markets where farmers are guaranteed a minimum price for staple crops such as rice and wheat.
Thousands of farmers, many belonging to the agriculture-rich regions of Punjab, Haryana, and Uttar Pradesh, have been camping on Delhi’s outskirts since they were denied permission to enter the Indian capital for a large demonstration 10 months ago.
The long-running movement presents a headache for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in New Delhi as farmer vote banks can prove decisive in some of the states where assembly elections are due next year.
By camping just outside Delhi, the farmers are able to have regular access to Indian and foreign media to amplify their message while heavily using social media to rally their supporters and sympathizers.
Rakesh Tikait, a spokesman for the protesting farmers, in a flurry of television interviews on Monday, the day marked by a nationwide general strike to demand the repeal of the farm laws, vowed not to back down from his demands.
Reacting to the general strike, a minister in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government said opposition parties were exploiting the farmers’ movement for political gains.
Tikait, who belongs to western Uttar Pradesh where farm unions are powerful, said the farmers are not ready to end their protest as the government does not want to discuss their revocation.
The government says the new laws benefit farmers by removing restrictions on the farm produce trade in the vast domestic market.
Tikait complained about poor rural infrastructure, saying the agricultural sector was already unprofitable for the educated youth and poor marginal cultivators and forced them to leave villages in search of urban employment.
He said the new measures would worsen the situation as, without guaranteed adequate prices for their produce, farmers would be forced to sell their land to repay debts.
Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM), the alliance of farmer groups, claimed its general strike call received a “resounding widespread response” on Monday.
“Life came to a near standstill in several states like Kerala, Punjab, Haryana, Jharkhand and Bihar,” it said in a statement, adding a similar situation as witnessed in parts of the states of Assam, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Uttarakhand.
Since the farmers escalated their protest with their attempted march on Delhi last year, their voices have found an echo abroad as well in places with significant migrant Punjabi and other diaspora communities.
The fear of loss of land and livelihoods is greater among Punjab’s relatively affluent farming communities and they are at the forefront of the campaign.
Mindful of public sentiment, Punjab’s new chief minister Charanjit Singh Channi has reiterated that the state would not implement the central government’s controversial agriculture laws.