Indian farmers continue anti-farm law protests amid COVID surge

Thousands of farmers remain undeterred and continue their protests outside New Delhi despite a record surge in infections.

Indian farmers shout slogans as they block a highway during a nationwide strike at the Delhi-Uttar Pradesh border last month [File: Harish Tyagi/EPA]

New Delhi, India – Even as India battles a second and more brutal wave of coronavirus infections, thousands of farmers demanding the repeal of farm laws passed by the government last year remain undeterred and continue their protests on the outskirts of the capital, New Delhi.

Since November, tens of thousands of farmers have been protesting against three new agricultural laws passed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, which the farmers say will destroy their livelihoods by giving private corporations more control over the sector.

On Monday, the protests entered their sixth month.

While Modi claims the new laws will modernise India’s agriculture, multiple rounds of talks held between farmers’ unions from across the country and the government failed to break the deadlock.

Even an escalating COVID-19 crisis, which has seen the world’s most populous nation break records for daily infections and deaths for weeks now, has failed to break the protest by farmers, who hail mainly from the states of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh in the north.

“These farm laws are a bigger threat to us than corona,” Kittu Maan Singh, a protester at Delhi’s Tikri border with the neighbouring Haryana state, told Al Jazeera.

Farmers at the border could be seen flouting COVID-19 guidelines by not following physical distancing or wearing face masks.

Singh, who hails from Punjab, has been a part of the protest for months now against what the farmers refer to as “black” laws.

“We will survive the COVID-19 situation but if we do not resist the black farm laws brought by the Modi government, our future is doomed,” he said.

Farmers sit in a tractor-trailer during a 24-hour blockade of a major expressway as part of their ongoing protests against new farm laws in Dasna, India [File: Altaf Qadri/AP]

Gurdarshan Singh, 61, from Wazirpur village in Punjab’s Patiala district, is protesting at the Singhu border, another major entry point to the capital from Haryana, where, like at Tikri, thousands continue to gather.

“We don’t fear COVID-19 because we have bigger things to worry about,” Singh, who owns a small plot of land, told Al Jazeera.

Singh questioned the government’s motives in approving the farm laws when the country was in the middle of a pandemic, without discussing the legislation with the farmers or opposition parties.

“If the government is so much concerned about the pandemic, why did it bring the farm laws in the middle of a pandemic without asking whether or not we want those reforms,” he told Al Jazeera.

“Why can’t the government announce it will revoke the laws? We will continue our protest unless this government takes them back and guarantees us a minimum support price for our crops.”

Singh said there has been a drop in the number of protesters at three sites outside New Delhi over the past few weeks. But he attributed that not to the pandemic, but to the wheat harvesting season.

Indian farmers block a highway during a nationwide strike at the Delhi-Uttar Pradesh border last month [File: Harish Tyagi/EPA]

Since late November, tens of thousands of farmers have camped at three key highways outside New Delhi, erecting hundreds of tents and use tractor-trailers to block the roads.

Some farmers have even constructed brick houses along the highways, anticipating a long agitation against the government.

Dozens of makeshift kitchens continue to serve food and volunteers offer healthcare facilities for free. Inside their tents and tractor trolleys, farmers have installed fans and water coolers to fight India’s notorious heat.

The farmers have refused to vacate the sites unless the government agrees to completely roll back the farm laws and guarantee the continuation of the Minimum Support Price (MSP) system that gives them a minimum sale price for their produce.

Farmers catch hold of a man, centre in light green shirt, they accuse of misbehaving with protesting farmers during their protest against new farm laws in Dasna, India [File: Altaf Qadri/AP]

Meanwhile, health experts have expressed concern over the continuing protest, given the record number of COVID-19 infections being reported in the country.

“It’s worrisome because right now we know that any large social gathering is a cause for concern – be it a political rally, a religious gathering or a protest venue,” public health expert Anant Bhan told Al Jazeera.

“Having such a large number of people could be challenging, mostly because the health system around New Delhi is now collapsing. There is an acute shortage of oxygen and beds.”

Epidemiologist Dr Giridhara R Babu told Al Jazeera all types of crowds that have 10 or more people should be prevented.

“Any gathering should not be allowed, whether it’s a cinema house in full attendance or a marriage event. Any type of crowd should be avoided at this stage because the surge is everywhere,” he said.

Farmers participate in a 24-hour blockade of a major expressway as part of their ongoing protests against new farm laws in Dasna, India [Altaf Qadri/AP]

Bhan said both the government and farmer leaders should think over the risks in continuing with the protests, which could impact individuals participating in them.

A spokesman of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Syed Zafar Islam, told Al Jazeera his government has shown its willingness to engage with the farmers, but it was up to them to call off the protest.

“It is the protesting farmers who have to decide that this is not the time to protest. The government is extremely keen to engage,” he said.

“It is for the farmers to understand that their protest, whatever they are doing under the circumstances, is certainly not justified especially when this pandemic is spreading and they can become carriers for this virus.”

But farmer leader Satnam Singh Behru wonders why the government does not instead revoke the laws so that the protesting farmers can go back to their homes.

“Why isn’t the government accepting our demands? If it will accept our demands, we will return to our homes tomorrow,” said Behru.

“We lost over 350 farmers in these months. They died of heart attack, in accidents or committed suicides. Whatever happens, we will not return to our homes unless the government accepts our demands.”

Source: Al Jazeera