India Farmer Protests Shut Down Main Roads As ‘National Strike’ Called

Farmer Leaders Say Monday’s Strike Has Energised Protesters.

Thousands of Indian farmers blocked traffic on major roads and railway lines in the national capital Delhi on Monday as they marked one year since the passage of the federal government’s contentious agricultural laws.

The farmers called for a nationwide strike to renew their protests against the “black laws” that they believe will bring an end to their livelihood, demonstrations that first began 10 months ago. The government says the changes will benefit farmers, but unions fear they could take away the protections provided by state-run markets.

“The strike was observed in several parts of the country from Kerala in the south to West Bengal in the east,” Hannan Mollah, general secretary of the All Indian Kisan Sabha, told The Independent. “Farmers in Maharashtra, Telangana, Tripura and Bihar also took part in the strike.”

A coalition of 40 farmers’ unions, the Samyukta Kisan Morcha (the United Farmers’ Front) had called on Indians to shut down offices, shops, public transportation and factories for 10 hours in solidarity with the farmers’ struggle. Although several establishments remained open in major cities, the strike was largely observed in rural parts of the country, where farmers cultivate their produce.

Waving colourful flags and distributing free food, hundreds of farmers gathered at the Ghazipur border, which divides Delhi from the state of Uttar Pradesh. Security was beefed up along the borders of Ghaziabad and traffic movement on some key routes was hit due to the strike. The national highway connecting Ghaziabad and Delhi was closed by the local police.

Farmers in other states also raised slogans against prime minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Farmers’ organisations shared visuals of these protests on social media.

“There has not been such a long protest in history. Since the federal government is only lying without any discussion we have to continue calling for strikes to keep the agitation alive,” Mr Mollah told The Independent.

He added: “At least 700 people have died throughout the agitation. This is a fascist government. They think we will get tired and return to our houses. This strike has re-energised our farmers. We have never seen such an anti-farmer, anti-labour government.”

Another prominent face of the agitation, Bharatiya Kisan Union leader Rakesh Tikait, said: “We are hopeful that this time the government will listen to our demands. No matter how long we have to stretch this protest, we will not step back”.

In the western states of Punjab and Haryana, which are the country’s two biggest agricultural producers, thousands of demonstrators blocked highways during Monday’s strike. The southern state of Kerala, which is ruled by a communist government, witnessed a complete shutdown.

In the eastern states of Bihar and West Bengal, protesters took to the streets, blocking railway lines and burning effigies of the prime minister.

Farmers from the western states of India have been camping at three Delhi borders asking the government to repeal the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, and The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, which were bulldozed through the Indian Parliament in September 2020.

Mr Modi has called the new laws a “watershed moment” for Indian agriculture, while farmers fear that millions of people will suffer due to the unpredictability of the free market.

The laws deregulate the agriculture sector and leave farmers to sell their produce to private wholesale markets, where there is no assurance of a minimum price. Farmers fear they will suffer loss at the hands of big businesses and eventually lose price supports for staples such as wheat and rice.

Several rounds of talks between the government and farmer unions since last year have failed to end the impasse.

Lashing out at the prime minister, opposition parties such as the Congress and state governments not ruled by the BJP have also extended their support to the protest.

While the movement has been largely peaceful, demonstrators stormed the Red Fort in Delhi in January, leading to one death and several injuries.

The farmers’ agitation has transcended into the country’s political ambit, with union leaders trying to influence citizens to vote against the BJP.

Ahead of the elections expected early next year in Uttar Pradesh – India’s most populous state – over 500,000 farmers attended a rally on 5 September to step up pressure on the Modi administration to repeal the laws. “We will organise several such gatherings in election-bound states so that no one votes for the right-wing government,” Mr Mollah said.