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India's angry farmers brace for long, dangerous protest

Midhat Fatimah in Shambhu, India
February 23, 2024

Farmers in India say they feel cheated by the government after waiting years for their demands on minimum pricing to be met. They are once again faced with barricades and tear gas as they try to reach New Delhi.

A farmer points while giving a speech at the protest site
Farmers have accused the police of shooting pellets at protestersImage: Midhat Fatimah/DW

Security forces in India are using barricades, barbed wire, bulldozers, water cannons and even drones armed with tear gas shells to halt the farmers' convoys heading to New Delhi.

For many of the protesters, this feels like deja vu. Just a few years ago, they staged massive rallies against the government's pricing policy, calling for a legal guarantee of minimum support price (MSP), which would give the farming community a safety net against price fluctuations.

The protest was called off near the end of 2021 after authorities assured them their demands will be met.

After more than two years and no changes, many farmers now feel cheated.

Two umbrella bodies — the Samyukta Kisan Morcha and the Kisan Mazdoor Morcha — representing more than 200 farm unions, called a new march toward New Delhi earlier this month.

A woman puts clay on a man's face
Farmers have applied fuller’s earth, a type of clay, to protect themselves from the burning sensation of tear gasImage: Midhat Fatimah/DW

But marchers soon discovered that the roads to the Indian capital have once again been blocked.

Farmers ready for long standoff

Thousands of farmers of all ages are now stuck in their tractors and trucks at a highway in Shambhu village, which lies at the border of northern farming states of Punjab and Haryana.

Indian farmers pause protest for government negotiations

They said they have been met with massive injustice at the hands of the ruling government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Harpreet Singh, 34, a farmer from the Tarn Taran district of Punjab, said farmers would not be able to survive if their voices are not heard.

"It hurts a lot that we have to sit here away from our families," he told DW from his tractor trolley.

Harpreet Singh, a farmer from the Tarn Taran district of Punjab sitting inside a tractor trolley
Singh said he was ready for 'a year or two' away from homeImage: Midhat Fatimah/DW

"We are facing huge losses in our fields but we will have to continue our protest to save our future generations, to save farmers," he said.

But even with the losses due to protests, "the government not providing a legal guarantee of MSP will hurt us more."

Singh added he and other protesters have brought months worth of provisions and are ready for a prolonged standoff.

Years of waiting

The farmers are also demanding loan waivers and the implementation of the Swaminathan Commission's recommendations. The commission was formed in 2006 by the then ruling Indian National Congress, the rivals of Modi's BJP, and turning their conclusions into law would mean farmers get an MSP of 1.5 times of the weighted average cost of production.

Farmers resting on the road during the protest
Protesters have driven their trucks and tractors to the border of the Punjab stateImage: Midhat Fatimah/DW

The BJP promised to implement these policies after coming to power in 2014, but this pledge has not been fulfilled.

Moreover, many of the farmers are resentful over the government's tactics in quelling the protests, accusing the BJP of using brute force.

Bitterness, anger against the government

A protester told DW that the government has "cheated" the farmers who believed its promises in 2021.

"We have been labelled as terrorists, but this is our country which we say is a democracy but does not feel like one," he said, with his eyes still red and watery from tear gas.

Protesting farmers stand and watch as police continue to block their path to Haryana
The response to the protests has inflamed tensionsImage: Midhat Fatimah/DW

Earlier this week, police used drones to drop tear gas and fired several rounds of the gas to disperse the crowd. Many farmers were injured, and some had to be hospitalized.

"Is the government meant to bombard unarmed people?" asked Sawaranjit Singh, a farmer from Ludhiana, while explosions from the tear gas canisters kept rocking the protest site.

"It's the murder of democracy."

Farmers injured, falling sick

On Wednesday, it was reported that a 24-year-old farmer had died after allegedly being hit by a bullet at the border town of Khanauri, where another group of farmers is protesting.

Injuries and health issues are also common at the Shambhu camp, with multiple medical teams trying to aid farmers complaining of diarrhea, fever, shortness of breath, skin rashes and other problems linked to persistent tear gas shelling and poor hygiene conditions.

Farmers have also alleged that the Haryana state authorities are using pellets and rubber bullets along with the tear gas. Haryana police officials have admitted to shooting rubber bullets, but denied the use of pellets.

Hina, a trained nurse, treating an elderly farmer at Shambhu border
Hina, a trained nurse (center) claims to have lost her job due to her time spent volunteering to help the farmersImage: Midhat Fatimah/DW

But medical workers who spoke with DW also believe protesters were shot by pellets.

"The first two days at the protest site were critical. I received several patients with breathing problems, skin rashes and some 200 patients with pellet injuries," said Hina, who goes by her first name, a nurse who has volunteered to provide medical aid at Shambhu.

Hina said "several farmers had received serious injuries and had to be referred to nearby hospitals."

A doctor who spoke with DW on the condition of anonymity also said he had treated several people with pellet injuries.

Edited by: Darko Janjevic