Sunday, September 26

Digging: on the front lines as farmers besiege Delhi | India

When the bags were opened, almonds, more than 10,000 kg, were spilled. It was not the first donation sent to Indian farmers defiantly camping along the outskirts of Delhi. In previous days, trucks had rolled up and dumped sacks of rice, beans, flour, vegetables, sugar, tea, and cookies.

“This is food sent by supporters from all over India and from as far away as England and Canada. There is no shortage of food. We have enough to eat for months, ”said Jaswinder Pal Singh, a farmer from Punjab.

Now in its 15th day, a protest by mainly Sikh farmers from Punjab and Haryana against the government’s plan to liberalize the agricultural sector shows no sign of wasting its bustling energy.

Hundreds of thousands of farmers, many gnarled and weather-beaten with white beards, have besieged the Indian capital. They refuse to be transferred until the new laws are repealed.

Farmers protesting in their tractor cart at the Delhi-Haryana state border in Singhu on December 10, 2020
Farmers protesting in their tractor cart at the Delhi-Haryana state border in Singhu on December 10. Photograph: Prakash Singh / AFP / Getty Images

Farmers arrived in tractor caravans with attached carts, generally used to transport crops but now repurposed as temporary homes alongside police barricades.

A cart serves as a bedroom, filled with blankets and bundles of clothes hanging on hooks. The sides of the cart serve as washing lines and the spaces around the tractors, protected by tarpaulins, have been turned into resting areas where farmers chat and rage against the reforms.

With talks between farm leaders and the government in a continuing stalemate, farmers know it could be a long way, possibly months, so they have arranged for regular hot meals.

In Singhu, one of three sites on the outskirts of the Indian capital where farmers have settled, meals and snacks are cooked at all times of the day and tea is brewed in giant kettles and vats.

The protesters wake up with tea and potato fritters. Lunch is rice, dal, and vegetables. Afternoon tea is accompanied by biscuits and biscuits. Dinner is a complete meal that is completed with kheer, an Indian rice pudding.

A laundromat has opened its doors to offer farmers free use of the washing machine, and a shopping center has allowed its power sockets to be used to recharge mobile phones.

Protesters grind almonds into a paste to make a
The protesters grind the almonds into a paste to make an “energy drink”. Photograph: Amrit Dhillon / The Guardian

Elsewhere in protest, in Ghazipur, an NGO has set up a makeshift library of books and magazines on agriculture and social issues. It is proving popular with the younger protesters – educated young Sikhs who have followed their parents in farming, despite small holdings, due to a lack of other employment opportunities.

These are citizens of the land, not of politics, but many now say that India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi radically underestimated their determination and resilience, and now he may have found his match.

“It is my land. I am the owner. What makes Modi think he can make decisions on my behalf? At least he should have consulted us, the least he could have done, ”Singh said.

The agriculture sector, which employs nearly half of Indians but adds only 15-16% to India’s GDP, is plagued by archaic practices and inefficiency. Tens of millions of farmers are struggling to make a living and the suicide rate in the agricultural sector is considered one of the highest in the world.

Modi argues that the reforms, which were approved in September, were long overdue. He assured farmers that the laws would modernize agriculture, attract investment and give them more income by giving them more options on who to sell to.

However, while most farmers agree that their sector is in dire need of reform, they say these laws will not only leave them at the mercy of big corporations, but will also mean they will earn less from their crops and could run the price. risk of losing their land. They are also enraged by the lack of consultation with unions and agricultural leaders.

A makeshift community kitchen prepares food for protesting farmers on the Delhi-Haryana border in Singhu
A makeshift community kitchen prepares food on the border between Delhi and Haryana in Singhu. Photograph: EPA

Although the government made several important concessions on Wednesday, including a promise to maintain a guaranteed price, farmers rejected the deal. Farmers say they could intensify the unrest next week and block all roads to Delhi, a move that would cut off deliveries of food and medical supplies to the capital.

“We have left our families at home. They are waiting for us. We don’t like living like this in the open air. But we will not return empty-handed, ”said Manjit Singh from Ludhiana, who has camped in Singhu since the first day of the protest.

There have already been 15 deaths, and as winter temperatures begin to drop, farmers acknowledge that things can get even more difficult, especially during the nights. Volunteer doctors have established posts to treat people with ailments. But fever, colds and aches are already common.

A group of farmers protesting.
Farmers refuse to be transferred until new laws are repealed. Photograph: Amrit Dhillon / The Guardian

Older people, in particular, are struggling with discomfort. Their joints ache. Your blood pressure fluctuates. “It bothers me that this government has made elderly farmers sleep on the ground in the open just to protect their rights,” said Dr. Amarjit Singh.

In the densely populated camp, the coronavirus appears to be of no concern, and a sense of misplaced machismo means that hardly anyone wears a mask.

“We don’t have to worry about the coronavirus,” Satbir Singh said, flexing his arm. “We are strong because of all the physical work we do in the field. We will not spread the virus. “

For now, farmers’ resilience is unshakable and their appetites are satisfied. A group of muscular young men sit in rows and begin to grind the kilos of almonds that were given to them earlier. The pasta, which is mixed with milk in metal containers, will be delivered, they said, to “keep the farmers strong and fit to keep the protest going.”

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