Reinforcements arrive at Indian farm protests

NEW DELHI (AFP) – Indian authorities cut power and water to a farmers’ protest camp yesterday and stepped up police pressure after a violent rally in the capital – but hundreds more arrived on tractors to reinforce the campaign against rural reforms.

With thousands of extra paramilitaries put on duty, the government and farmers’ leaders signalled they were digging in for a prolonged new showdown in the two-month battle over the deregulation laws.

Three days after clashes across the city that left one person dead and nearly 400 police injured, authorities turned the screws on camps around the edge of New Delhi where tens of thousands of farmers have waited for more than eight weeks.

“When we don’t have any land left, when we are unable to cultivate any crops, we are going to die anyway,” said Bhagwant Singh, a 53-year-old farmer at the encampment. “At least if we die here protesting, we will be martyrs. We will fight and die for the rights of the people of this country.”

Power and water were cut at the Ghazipur camp on one main road into Delhi. Major police reinforcements went to the biggest camp at Singhu on another highway into the city and new concrete barriers were put up.

One small camp has been closed, as have many roads around the protest sites.

President Ram Nath Kovind told the opening of a budget session of parliament that the storming of the landmark Red Fort by protesters on Tuesday had been an “insult” to the national flag.

Farmers participate in a tractor protest rally towards the capital in New Delhi, India. PHOTO: AP

But in a sign of the growing political divisions caused by the farm dispute, opposition parties boycotted his speech.

The controversial reforms deregulate farm produce markets that have for decades been organised by state bodies with minimum prices guaranteed.

The farmers said the Hindu-nationalist government’s laws will put Indian conglomerates in control of produce.

While farmers have called off a plan to march on parliament on Monday – when Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government outlines its annual spending plan – they reaffirmed their determination to stay at the camps.

Leaders brought in generators to provide power, while the Delhi regional government, run by an opposition party, organised water tankers.

Some protesters have left since Tuesday’s violence, but hundreds of men and women arrived during the night on tractors.

Some said they had been inspired by a tearful video issued by Rakesh Tikait, one of the dozens of farmers’ leaders who now face a police inquiry over the unrest and the assault on the Red Fort.

Tikait insisted in the video that the farmers would stay.

Protesters banged ladles on pots through the night, urging each other to stay awake because of worries of police action.

“The government is trying to derail our protest through lies and mischief,” said protester Sukhdev Singh, a farmer in his 30s. He said their families in Punjab state were worried but did not want them to return.

“We won’t budge from here till the laws are taken back – even if that takes a day, a month or a year or 10 years.”

Farming has long been a political minefield, with nearly 70 per cent of India’s 1.3 billion people drawing their livelihood from agriculture.

The government said the industry is massively inefficient and the reforms will boost rural incomes.