In eastern and western states, Indian farmers have blocked roads and railway tracks, delaying people from getting to work and preventing perishable produce from reaching markets.

Activists of Socialist Unity Centre of India burn a cut-out of India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a protest during a nationwide strike against the newly passed farm bills in Kolkata, India, December 8, 2020.
Activists of Socialist Unity Centre of India burn a cut-out of India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a protest during a nationwide strike against the newly passed farm bills in Kolkata, India, December 8, 2020. (Reuters)

Farmers' protests against new laws liberalising agricultural markets have spread across India, as farm organisations called for a nationwide strike after inconclusive talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government.

In eastern and western states, farmers blocked roads and squatted on railway tracks, delaying hordes of people getting to work, and preventing perishable produce from reaching markets.

Farmers from the northern states of Punjab and Haryana, neighbouring New Delhi, have been at the vanguard of the agitation since last month, and have set up protest camps in and around the capital.

"We will not allow the government to change the rules because they want to hurt farmers' income by filling the pockets of big companies," said Gurwinder Singh, a 66-year-old farmer from Punjab, a state known as the food bowl of India.

The reforms enacted in September loosened rules around the sale, pricing and storage of farm produce that have protected farmers from an unfettered free market for decades.

Assured of floor prices, most currently sell the bulk of their produce at government-controlled wholesale markets, known as mandis.

READ MORE: Rally held in California for Indian farmers as nationwide strike looms

Not hurt farmers' incomes

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has said the reforms would not hurt farmers' incomes. More talks between the government and farmer organisations are due on Wednesday.

Meantime, social media has fanned sympathy for the farmers' cause among the Indian diaspora abroad. During recent days, thousands of people have protested in support of the farmers outside the Indian embassy in central London.

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, protest sites around New Delhi have turned into camps, with entire families cooking and sleeping in the open and Sikh religious organisations were providing them with face masks, water and food.

At least 20 regional and national opposition parties backed the call for the strike.

"It's going to be nightmare if there will be any serious unrest during the pandemic," a senior home ministry bureaucrat overseeing security told Reuters on condition of anonymity, warning that police had been authorised to use water cannons or tear gas to disperse over-crowded protests.

'Black Laws'

The farmers are camping along at least five major highways on the outskirts of New Delhi and have said they won’t l eave until the government rolls back what they call the “black laws”.

Farmers have been protesting the laws for nearly two months in Punjab and Haryana states. The situation escalated last week when tens of thousands marched to New Delhi, where they clashed with police.

The laws add to already existing resentment from farmers, who often complain of being ignored by the government in their push for better crop prices, additional loan waivers and irrigation systems to guarantee water during dry spells.

With nearly 60 percent of the Indian population depending on agriculture for their livelihoods, the growing farmer rebellion has rattled Modi’s administration and allies.

Modi and his party's leaders have tried to allay farmers’ fears about the new laws while also dismissing their concerns. Some of the party leaders have called the farmers “misguided” and “anti-national”, a label often given to those who criticise Modi or his policies.

Many opposition party leaders, activists and even some allies of Modi’s party have called the laws anti-farmer and expressed support for those protesting.

READ MORE: Indian farmers reject government's talks offer over farm laws

Source: Reuters