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Farmers protesting reforms swarm Indian capital: 5 things to know

Union leader says growers can survive COVID 'but not anti-peasant laws'

Farmers at the Singhu border near Delhi protest against newly passed laws that they say benefit corporations.    © Reuters

NEW DELHI -- Unfazed by the cold weather and the coronavirus pandemic, thousands of farmers have been camping at the borders of the Indian capital city for a week to protest against the country's new agriculture laws which they fear may leave them at the mercy of corporations.

On Tuesday, 35 farm leaders met a government delegation, including Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar and Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal, demanding the repeal of three farm laws that parliament cleared in September with an aim to liberalizing the agriculture sector. However, the talks failed to make much headway, and the two sides will meet again on Thursday to try to resolve issues.

The farmers' leaders also rejected the government's proposal "to form a five-member committee to look into the objections [of growers] and study [their] concerns," said the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee, an umbrella body of farmers' groups and the organizer of the protest, in a statement. It also said it had conveyed to the authorities that such committees have failed to produce any satisfactory outcome in the past.

The farmers' protests are among the largest India has witnessed. While describing the new laws as beneficial to the growers, the government appears keen to find a resolution to end the protests as farmers form a large electorate that political parties in India cannot ignore. Here are five points to know about the situation.

What does the government say?

The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi expects the latest agricultural reforms to bring transparency and accelerate growth in the sector; to attract private investment in supply chains and farm infrastructure; and to create new employment opportunities in rural areas.

About half of India's workforce is employed in agriculture, a sector that contributes 15% to the country's gross domestic product. Relying on unpredictable monsoon rains, growers face low productivity and profits, and many of them end up deep in debt.

Under the new reforms, farmers -- who have for decades been protected from the free market -- will be allowed to directly enter into selling agreements with food processing industries and agencies, wholesale and retail traders as well as exporters.

They will be able to sell their products at competitive rates to private companies anywhere in the country, instead of selling only to government-regulated wholesale markets, or mandis, where they receive a minimum support price. The floor price, or MSP, is a government-fixed benchmark designed to protect farmers from sharp price falls in times of bumper harvests.

"After a lot of deliberation, the parliament of India gave a legal form to the agricultural reforms," Modi said in a radio address on Sunday. "These reforms have not only served to unshackle our farmers but also given them new rights and opportunities."

What is the problem then?

The protests against the laws escalated last week as farmers from India's north arrived in trolleys and tractors at Delhi's Singhu border with Haryana state, blocking traffic along one of the main highways into the capital amid reports of a clash with security forces.

Farmers fear the reforms will lead to the dismantling of mandis and the MSP, leaving them at the mercy of private companies that may have the clout to dictate prices. The government has offered assurances that traditional markets and the MSP will continue, and that growers will be free to choose mandis or other buyers.

Farmers claim the new laws, that also allow contract farming and permit traders and retailers to stockpile commodities, are aimed at benefiting corporations only.

"We just want the three farm laws repealed and the MSP be made our legal right," Dharmendra Malik, a leader of Bharatiya Kisan Union, one of the prominent farmers' organizations, told Nikkei Asia.

What is the international reaction to the situation?

"The situation is concerning," Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said.

"Let me remind you, Canada will always be there to defend the right of peaceful protest," he said, addressing members of Canada's Sikh community who originally hail from India's Punjab state, the hotbed of the protests. "We believe in importance of dialogue and that's why we have reached out through multiple means directly to Indian authorities to highlight our concerns."

New Delhi showed its displeasure to Trudeau's remarks in a strongly worded statement issued by the Ministry of External Affairs.

"We have seen some ill-informed comments by Canadian leaders relating to farmers in India," it said without directly mentioning Trudeau. "Such comments are unwarranted, especially when pertaining to the internal affairs of a democratic country. It is also best that diplomatic conversations are not misrepresented for political purposes."

Could these protests become COVID-19 superspreader events?

The protests come at a time when India is battling the COVID-19 pandemic, with the country having confirmed nearly 9.5 million cases and over 138,000 deaths as of Wednesday. Winter has also arrived in the country's north, including the capital city.

Yet, demonstrators were not following social distancing rules and many of them were pictured without masks, triggering fears that they could be spreading the virus.

"These farm laws are a bigger threat to us than coronavirus," Malik said.

"We may survive COVID-19 but not these [anti-peasant] laws," he said, citing the mass rallies that political parties, including Modi's, held recently in Bihar before state elections.

Will protesters budge from their demands?

"The protests will continue till our demands are fulfilled," Ashutosh Mishra, media coordinator for the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee, told Nikkei. He said there were at least 30,000 protesters at Delhi borders, causing a traffic tailback of 20-25 kilometers at Singhu.

"The government wants point-to-point clarification from our side such as [the specific issues] on which we have problems [with regard to the laws]," he said, adding they are going to submit those points before the talks with authorities resume on Thursday.

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