Farmers in India have called for a country-wide strike amid a standoff with the government over new market-friendly reforms. Tuesday's strike follows three rounds of inconclusive talks between the two sides over laws that farmers say are against their interests.
Thousands of them have been besieging Delhi for the last 12 days, choking almost all the entry points. They have marched to the capital in a tractor convoy, and on foot. Police and paramilitary forces tried to stop them with barricades, but they fought back for their rights.
Most of the protesting farmers come from the northern states of Punjab and Haryana and belong to the richest agricultural communities in the world. Their campaign finds resonance on social media and among the prominent Sikh community in Punjab and abroad.
While they were allowed to reach the city later, thousands of them are still at the borders, threatening not to leave until the government rolls back the reforms. Since then, protest sites have turned into camps, with whole families cooking and sleeping in the open.
Protests are coming even as the pandemic rages in India. While case counts have been falling nationwide, Delhi has seen a strong uptick in recent months.
Photos of thousands of elderly farmers from Punjab and Haryana, regarded as the "food bowl" of India, who were tear-gassed and sprayed with water in the winter, have won enormous public sympathy in India and the diaspora around the globe.
The farm bills roiled the parliament of the country when it was passed in September, which led to the suspension of eight opposition members.
At least 15 opposition parties have now backed the call for a protest. A further round of talks is scheduled for 9 December.
The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) said that reforms that allow private players to play a greater role in the farming sector would not hurt farmers' incomes.
Farmers remain unconvinced.
What do the reforms propose?
The reforms would loosen rules on the selling, pricing and storage of agricultural products- the same rules that have shielded Indian farmers from an unfettered free market for decades.
They would also allow private buyers to store vital goods for future sales, which only government-authorised agents could make earlier; and they lay down rules for contract farming, where farmers tailor their production to the needs of a particular buyer.
One of the main changes is that farmers will be able to sell their goods at market rates directly to private players-farm companies, grocery chains and online grocers. Most Indian farmers are currently selling most of their produce on government-controlled wholesale markets or 'mandis' at guaranteed floor prices.
These markets are managed by committees made up of farmers, mostly large landowners, merchants or "commission agents" who serve as middlemen to broker transactions, arrange storage and transport, or even fund deals.
The reforms, at least on paper, give farmers the option of selling outside of this so-called "mandi system".
So, why are farmers angry?
The issue is that it's unclear how this will play out in reality.
"We will lose our lands, we will lose our income if you let big business decide prices and buy crops," Gurnam Singh Charuni, one of the main leaders of the agitation, told the BBC recently.
"We don't trust big business. Free markets work in countries with less corruption and more regulation. It can't work for us here," he said.
Farmers are mainly worried that the reforms would inevitably lead to the end of wholesale markets and guaranteed prices, leaving them without a back-up option. That is, if they are not happy with the price offered by a private purchaser, they cannot return to the mandi or use it as a bargaining chip during negotiations.
The government has said that the Mandi scheme will continue and that they will not withdraw the floor prices that they currently offer. Farmers are wary, however.
"First, farmers will feel attracted towards these private players, who will offer a better price for the produce. The government mandis will pack up meanwhile and after a few years, these players will start exploiting the farmers. That's what we fear," Multan Singh Rana, a farmer in the northern state of Punjab, told BBC Punjabi.
Case study of Bihar
In 2006, Bihar's Chief Minister, Nitish Kumar shut down the mandi system in the state. It had massive impact on the farmer, but not in a good way. Farmers have had to sell their produce to private procurers at throwaway prices.
Kumar's government repealed the Agriculture Produce Marketing Committee (APMC) Act in Bihar and for 14 years now, experts said, farmers have not had a favourable market for their produce.
About 97 per cent of the state's agricultural community comprise either marginal or small farmers — those who are hardly left with a surplus to sell.
In a report by Down to Earth organization, Economist DM Diwakar said, "The Modi government says the new farm bills won't adversely impact the farming community. Given the logic, the financial condition of 94 per cent of farmers in Bihar — who didn't go to mandis or were not covered under minimum support price (MSP) — should have improved in the past 14 years. But their condition has deteriorated."
Paddy has sold for Rs 900-1,000 a quintal in Bihar, almost half the Rs 1,868 fixed by the Centre as MSP, alleged the former director of Patna-based AN Sinha Institute of Social Studies. Nearly half the farmers can't even recover their investments, he added.
Farmers earlier sold their crops through vyaapaar mandals (trading bodies), the expert said; only a few could reach the markets and got proper rates. Market yards also provided space to farmers to dry up paddy and other produces if they had moisture.
"Before the scrapping of the APMC Act, farmers would sell their produce to the market committees where minimum price was guaranteed. But after the repeal of this system, they indulged in distress sale lest their produce would go to waste because they had no storage facility," said economist Abdul Qadir.
He added that farming has turned out to be a non-viable profession in Bihar over time. "Farmers from Bihar have now been working as labourers in Punjab and Haryana," he said.
Farmers have been pushed to the brink after the revocation of the APMC Act, said Baliram Sharma, who earlier headed vyaapaar mandal.
Several farmers said they did not get the cost of their produce, making it difficult for them to repay the loan. "I invested Rs 12,000 in farming this season but got only Rs 8,000 after selling paddy. I incurred a loss of Rs 4,000," said Naresh Murmu, a farmer from Jamui district.
He sold 10 quintals of paddy at Rs 1,500 a quintal against the MSP of Rs 1,868.
Another farmer, Somnath Singh from east Champaran, said they run into huge losses every year since there is no unity among farmers and because they lack awareness about the farm laws.
"Earlier, we would get a good price for our produce but the situation has deteriorated after the abolishment of the APMC Act. The The Primary Agricultural Credit Society (PACS) simply refuse to buy our produce citing moisture; even if they procure them, they take months to pay the dues," said Singh.
Lack of storage facilities has dealt another blow to farmers who are compelled to dispose of their goods. "We sold potatoes and onions roughly between Rs 8-10 per kilogram to the local businessmen who are now selling our produce at Rs 50 and Rs 70 respectively. This happened because we have no space to store our produce," Singh said.
Kishore Jaiswal, convener of Pragatisheel Krishi Manch, said the scrapping of APMC Act in Bihar has very systematically reduced the then infrastructure of market yards and a major facility to farmers to get good rate for their produce. "Farmers are just battling for survival," he said.
But this has happened in a state where more than 70% of the population is engaged in agricultural operations. According to the Bihar Economic Survey, the economic activities in Bihar are closely linked to the growth of agriculture and related sectors due to their strong links with food and nutrition security.
Not only does this sector increase food production, it also creates job opportunities, increases livelihood opportunities and reduces poverty.
Support Bharat Bandh
Farmer leader Raju Shetti on Monday appealed to the Centre to understand the "sentiments" of people in the country and rollback the contentious agriculture laws.
The Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghtana (SSS) president also asked people to support the ''Bharat Bandh'' called by farmers'' unions on Tuesday, reports Outlook India.
He said the SSS will agitate peacefully in the state. "It is being projected that the ongoing agitation is limited to farmers from Haryana and Punjab. But the government should understand and take note that this is a nationwide agitation of cultivators.
"Farmers are very angry. In such scenario, the role of the government should be that of a mother who should try to hear their concerns," said Shetti.
Shiv Sena senior leader and Aurangabad former MP Chandrakant Khaire on Monday appealed all party office bearers to participate in the "Bharat Bandh" as well.
"The new farm bills in the interest of the capitalists and not for the benefit of the farmers. Standing firmly behind the farmers who are the backbone of the country, this movement has been supported by more than 20 major parties across the country and numerous organisations have raised the voice for farmer," he told the United News of India.