“We’re here for a long time” | In India, farmers mobilize to demonstrate

(Shambhu) Sitting on board their tractors, Indian farmers who want to demonstrate are awaiting orders from their unions on Thursday to advance towards New Delhi and swear to stay longer than the police officers who are blocking them.

“We’re here for a long time,” says Mela Singh, 70, one of thousands of farmers camped on the highway in front of police checkpoints, some 200 km north of the Indian capital.

“A month, six months, a year, it doesn’t matter, we will leave only after we win,” adds the man from the Mansa district in the northern state of Punjab.

Community kitchens and makeshift medical facilities sprung up. Farmers snore under tarpaulins stretched over their tractor trailer.

They launched a “Delhi Chalo” (a march on Delhi) this week, recalling their demonstration on January 26, 2021 when farmers forced police barricades to enter the capital, in the midst of Republic Day celebrations, during a conflict of several months with the government.

They were then protesting against the liberalization of agricultural markets. Today, the key issue is obtaining a law for a minimum price for their crops, as well as a waiver of their debts.

The protests come ahead of national elections expected in April. This time, their hundreds of tractors were stopped by the concrete blocks and barbed wire of the police who fire tear gas whenever the farmers get too close.

As the wait lengthens, the energy of departure, with slogans constantly chanted or kites launched to ward off police drones throwing tear gas, gives way to indolence. But farmers are in no hurry to return home.

“Everyone’s fight”

Kamaljit Singh, 35, makes sure everyone has a cup of his very sweet milk tea. “We have a hundred liters of milk”, donated by his village to support the demonstrators, explains this farmer from the Patiala district in Punjab. “And another 200 liters are on the way. We have enough for everyone.”

This milk symbolizes the union of all to demonstrate, he insists. “Everyone in the village contributed. It’s everyone’s fight.”

In India, two thirds of the population of 1.4 billion people depend on agriculture for their livelihood, which represents almost a fifth of the country’s GDP, according to official figures.

The surrounding villages take care of the demonstrators’ food and draw inspiration from the Sikh tradition of “langar” (community kitchens) coordinated by “gurdwaras” (Sikh places of worship).

“In every village in the neighborhood, gurdwaras have set up community kitchens where food is prepared day and night for farmers,” says Sukhpal Singh, 63, also from Patiala district.

Makhan Singh, a 60-year-old grain farmer, grabs a ‘roti’ (unleavened bread) for breakfast, curry and pickled chillies donated by a nearby village.

The smell of fresh curry wafts towards the lines of police. Armed with batons, they observe the camp from the roadblocks.

“In our village, women woke up at three in the morning to prepare food,” says Mukhiya Singh, 32, who serves tomato and potato curry.

Police use of water cannons and tear gas grenades prompted Mandeep Singh, a doctor in Hoshiarpur district (Punjab), to offer his services with a makeshift hospital.

“Tear gas causes respiratory problems,” he observes. His stock of antihistamines is already running low.

For now, farmers are awaiting the outcome of talks between union leaders and authorities in New Delhi. “What happens next will depend on the meeting,” notes Mela Singh.

reference: www.lapresse.ca

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