In the dusty expanse where New Delhi’s urban sprawl meets the vast Indian hinterland, thousands of farmers have gathered for more than a month in one of Narendra Modi’s greatest challenges during his six years as Prime Minister.
Nestled between brightly colored trucks, newcomers to this makeshift town gather around the fires to ward off the winter cold. Horses eat fodder while volunteers distribute food, medicine and books.
Over the past month, farmers have traveled hundreds of miles, mostly from the northwestern states of Punjab and Haryana, to protest a trio of sweeping new laws meant to open up India’s agricultural markets to greater private competition.
They fear that the reforms are an attempt to dismantle the state guarantees on which they depend, with catastrophic consequences for often precarious livelihoods.
The government sought to reconcile with the protesters, meeting for rounds of negotiations on the laws to no avail. Authorities invited farmers for further talks on Wednesday.
“We have been suffering since 1947 [India’s independence]. The government ignored us and our problems, ”said Morha Singh, a 34-year-old rice and wheat farmer. “We have cultivated the land and now they are trying to give it to the companies.”
Mr Singh said he would not leave until Mr Modi and his ruling party, Bharatiya Janata, backed down, placing the prime minister – who had pledged to revise outdated regulations and boost economic growth – in a dead end.
“Modi cannot stop us,” Singh said. “They have to go to the farmers. They must withdraw and repeal the invoices. “
Agricultural reform, which directly or indirectly supports more than half of India’s 1.4 billion largely rural people, is a continuing demand of politicians, economists and even farmers. In much of the country, productivity remains low, farmers lack options for trade and produce rots before it reaches consumers due to disrupted supply chains
The new laws aim to allow private trade outside state-regulated market prices and to open up contract farming between producers and businesses. The reforms “will ultimately lead to better lives and improved incomes,” Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar said last week.
Yet the BJP’s handling of the process alienated even potential supporters. He broke the laws thanks to a compressed parliament in September, when India’s coronavirus crisis was at its peak. Critics say his tactics undermined democratic norms and failed to build consensus with farmer groups.
“The process of implementing the reforms was totally unacceptable,” said Kapil Shah, a farmers’ rights activist from Gujarat. “Reforms are needed, but not in this way and not like this.”
National allies, including a party in Mr. Modi’s ruling coalition, have broken with him over the measures. Economists who believe more reforms are needed – like labor laws or banking laws – fear that backlash will ultimately reduce the prime minister’s desire to fight more, hampering long-term growth.
“This will make the government more opposed to reforms,” said Shumita Deveshwar, senior director of research firm TS Lombard. “It’s a vicious circle.”
Many of India’s agricultural policies were shaped by the need to ensure food security for its huge population after independence. In states like the Punjab, for example, farmers grow wheat and rice for sale in public markets at guaranteed prices.
This model, critics say, reduces crop diversity, depletes water resources, and allows wealthy farmers to thrive on others. Many economists believe that enabling private and competitive trade channels, already flourishing in some Indian states, will boost productivity and diversify production.
Others say the new laws fail to provide adequate protections for a fragmented agricultural sector weakened by years of stagnation, even though farmers in Punjab earn higher incomes than those in other states. They argue that smallholder farmers would find it difficult to do good deals with agribusinesses without more bargaining power.
The ultimate fear of farmers is that the reforms mark the beginning of the end of the guaranteed price system – which the government denies.
“Farmers are responding to years of underinvestment,” said Mekhala Krishnamurthy, an anthropologist who studies Indian agricultural markets at Ashoka University. “If you want to pursue a more market driven strategy, you have to do a lot more work before farmers see this as a credible strategy.”
The coronavirus pandemic and the lockdown that followed, which caused massive migration out of cities to rural areas, underscored how even a dysfunctional farming system was the only safety net for hundreds of millions of Indians.
“If I were a farmer I would be nervous too,” said Avinash Kishore, an economist at the International Food Policy Research Institute.
Mr Tomar said the government has fallen victim to its own success. “There was constant talk of various political parties to undertake these reforms,” said Tomar. “Because we were able to implement these reforms in a big way. . . the real opposition has started.
But the tone of the debate was poisoned from the start. Many of the protesters are from India’s Sikh religious minority and BJP members have sought to discredit the farmers by accusing them of being Sikh separatists, echoing the demonization of Muslim protesters after the government passed a litigation. citizens’ law based on religion Last year.
Farmers who marched on New Delhi last month were greeted with water cannons and tear gas.
One of the protests is Harshdeep Panaich, a 23-year-old farmer with a handlebar mustache, who hopes their action will force New Delhi to listen to them.
“Sikhs never bow to anyone. If something is wrong, they always speak out, ”he says. Mr Modi “meets Bollywood actors but not us. You are our Prime Minister, you have to face the people.