Farmers block roads, railways as protests mount over farm bills

Farmers block roads, railways as protests mount over farm bills
Farmers shout slogans as they block a railway track during a protest against farm bills passed by India's parliament, in Devi Dasspura village on the outskirts of Amritsar, September 24, 2020. Reuters/Munish Sharma
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New Delhi: Thousands of farmers across the country blocked roads and railway tracks on Friday in a protest against new legislation that they say could pave the way for the government to stop buying grain at guaranteed prices, leaving them at the mercy of private buyers.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government has defended the bills - recently approved by parliament - as reforms to help rid India's vast agriculture sector of antiquated laws and allow farmers to sell to institutional buyers and big retailers such as Walmart.

The government insists the new rules give farmers the option to sell their produce to private buyers while it would still purchase staples such as rice and wheat at guaranteed prices.

Farmers block roads, railways as protests mount over farm bills
Farmers gesture as they block a national highway during a protest against farm bills passed by India's parliament, in Shambhu in Punjab. Reuters/Adnan Abidi

But such assurances have failed to mollify millions of farmers who make up an influential voting bloc in states such as Punjab and Haryana - India's northern farm belt which borders the capital New Delhi.

Modi, who was re-elected with an overwhelming majority in 2019, now faces the biggest farmers' protest just weeks before an assembly election in Bihar, India's third-most populous state.

As part of a nationwide shutdown called by leading farmers' organisations, growers held demonstrations in many parts of the country and blocked highways leading to New Delhi using trucks, tractors and combine harvesters.

Farmers block roads, railways as protests mount over farm bills
Farmers on tractors shout slogans as they arrive to block the Delhi-Uttar Pradesh border during a protest against farm bills passed by India's parliament, in Noida, India, September 25, 2020. Reuters/Danish Siddiqui

Farmer Karam Singh accused the government of trying to make traditional wholesale markets redundant. Farm leaders say India's more than 7,000 regulated wholesale markets have played a crucial role in ensuring timely payments to growers.

Singh said the new law has made nearly 85% of India's poor farmers, who own less than 2 hectares (5 acres) of land, vulnerable to being shortchanged by private buyers.

"The private sector will give us a good price for one or two years, but what about after that?" he asked. "The government should guarantee the private sector will give us more than the government price."

Farmers block roads, railways as protests mount over farm bills
Farmers sit on the water tank as they block a national highway during a protest against farm bills passed by India's parliament, in Shambhu in Punjab, India, September 25, 2020. Reuters/Adnan Abidi

As well as in Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, farmers held protests in the eastern states of Odisha and West Bengal.

Farmers' bodies also organised protests in Modi's home state of Gujarat in eastern India.

The protests have remained peaceful but most growers, who hit the streets in large numbers, did not wear face masks despite a daily surge in coronavirus cases in India.

Farmers block roads, railways as protests mount over farm bills
Farmers gesture as they block a national highway during a protest against farm bills passed by India's parliament, in Shambhu in Punjab, Sept 25, 2020. Reuters/Adnan Abidi

Authorities on Friday had to cancel several train services as farmers blocked railway tracks.

Police in various states have beefed up security in the hope of heading off any violence, especially around New Delhi.

Hundreds of farmers -- on foot, two-wheelers and tractor-trolleys -- were stopped at Delhi's border with Uttar Pradesh as they tried to press ahead into the national capital, their agitation disrupting traffic in Noida and Ghaziabad.

Stopped from entering the city, the farmers staged 'panchayats' at the road blockades where they were addressed by Bhartiya Kisan Union office-bearers.

Farmers under the umbrella of the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS) staged protests in Kerala, including outside the Raj Bhavan in capital Thiruvananthapuram.

The Farmer's Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, 2020, the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, 2020 and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill, 2020, now await presidential assent.

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