Meanwhile, Prime Minister Narendra Modi slammed the Opposition parties, most of which have extended their support to the movement, and said that they were ‘playing tricks’ on the farmers
Farmers from all over the country continued their protest against the Centre’s new farm laws for the fifth day on Monday, and said that they had set out towards Delhi for a “decisive battle” and will continue their agitation till their demands are met.
Meanwhile, as the Centre attempted to negotiate with the farmers about engaging in talks over the issue, Prime Minister Narendra Modi slammed the Opposition parties, most of which have extended their support to the movement, and said that they were “playing tricks” on the farmers.
On Monday, farmer leaders addressed a press conference at Delhi’s Singhu border and said that they want the prime minister to listen to their “mann ki baat”, referring to the prime minister’s weekly radio programme.
“Our demands are non-negotiable,” a representative of the farmers said and claimed the ruling party “will have to pay a heavy price” if it does not heed to their concerns. “We have come here to fight a decisive battle,” he added.
Another farmer leader Gurnam Singh Chaduni said around 31 cases have so far been registered against protesters to “suppress” their agitation. Chaduni said that farmers will continue their agitation until their demands are met.
The Centre and protesting farmers have been going back and forth about shifting the agitation to a designated ground in Delhi’s Burari area.
While Union home minister Amit Shah had issued an appeal to shift to the Burari ground and said the Centre was ready to hold discussions with them as soon as they move to the designated place, the farmers on Sunday rejected the offer and demanded an unconditional dialogue.
The government and farmers are scheduled to hold talks on 3 December.
Thousands of protesters refused to budge and spent another night in the cold at the Singhu and Tikri border points on Sunday. Their representatives had said that Shah’s condition that they shift the protest is not acceptable and claimed Burari ground is an “open jail”.
Modi says farmers ‘being deceived’ by Opposition
Attacking the Opposition over the sustained farmer protests, Modi said, “The farmers are being deceived on these historic agriculture reform laws by the same people who have misled them for decades.”
The prime minister was addressing a public meeting in his Lok Sabha constituency Varanasi. In his address, he strongly defended the farm laws which deregulate the sale of crops but have also triggered apprehensions that the minimum support price (MSP) system is being dismantled.
Referring to the mandis, Modi reiterated that farmers who wanted to follow the old system of trading, where they can get the MSP, are still free to do so. But the three laws gave them new options to sell for more, he said.
He said whenever new laws are enacted questions are bound to be asked.
“But presently a new trend is being seen in the country. The protests are based on creating doubts through misinformation,” Modi said.
“We must remember that those doing so are the ones who had for decades deceived farmers, he claimed. The MSP used to be declared but very little procurement was done on it,” he claimed.
Farmers have faced deceit on MSP, loan waiver schemes, urea and productivity for a long time in the past, he said.
He claimed that it is because of this long history of deceit that farmers are again wary as they are seeing the new move in the same manner. He asked why his government would spend so much to modernise the mandis if it planned to dismantle the MSP system.
Modi gave figures claiming that crops worth much more were procured during the first five-year tenure of his BJP-led government than in the second term of the Congress government at the Centre.
He said small farmers will now be able to take legal action even on deals struck outside the mandis, which will not only provide them fresh alternatives but also protect them from being cheated.
However, the BJP’s allies like Nitish Kumar’s JD(U) in Bihar and the Rashtriya Loktantrik Party (RLP) in Rajasthan have advised caution in approaching the situation.
Nitish, who recently won a fourth term as the chief minister of Bihar as part of the NDA alliance with BJP, said the Centre should allay fears among the protesting farmers over the provision of minimum support price (MSP). Farmer unions have raised concerns specifically about MSP, fearing that the security net of MSP is threatened by the provisions in the new laws.
Nitish also sought to clear misconceptions over the farm legislation that allows sale of produce outside APMC mandis (markets), and pointed towards Bihar’s own experiment with the abolition of these.
“The Centre has proposed to hold talks with the agitating farmers. Once they sit across the table, it will become clear that fears over MSP are unfounded,” he told reporters.
‘Might have to rethink’
Meanwhile, RLP chief Hanuman Beniwal, writing to Shah, said the party might have to “rethink being in the NDA alliance unless the legislations are scrapped”.
In the letter, the MP from Nagaur said, “By drawing your attention to the farmer protests against the three bills, I would like to request you to immediately take action to withdraw these bills. The people who feed the country are agitating amid this extreme winter and the COVID-19 pandemic, which doesn’t reflect well on the government.”
“For talks with the agitating farmers, a proper place should be provided in Delhi according to their will. If a decision is not taken over this issue with immediate effect, then RLP will have to reconsider on the decision to continue in the (NDA) alliance. The strength of the RLP is in farmers and jawans,” he added.
The NDA has been facing unhappiness over the farm laws from within its ranks since they were passed in Parliament three months ago. One of its oldest allies, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) in Punjab, walked out of the alliance after the bills were tabled in Parliament. Party leader Harsimrat Kaur Badal, who was a Union minister, resigned from the Modi government over the issue.
Concrete barriers at Delhi-Ghaziabad border as more join protest
Despite the cold weather and COVID-19 threat, the number of protesting farmers continued to rise on Monday as more joined the agitation from Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. Farmers protesting at the Ghazipur border swelled on Monday, leading police to place concrete barriers and enhancing security at the border point connecting with Uttar Pradesh.
Security was stepped up after farmers threatened to block more highways connecting Delhi.
Peaceful protests were underway at both the Singhu and Tikri borders with no untoward incident reported for the last two days, but the numbers of farmers at the Ghazipur border swelled, with more their counterparts from the state joining them.
A Delhi Police officer said the situation at the Ghazipur border near UP Gate remained peaceful. He said, “Cement jersey barriers have been placed to prevent the protesting farmers from entering the national capital. The protesters do not wish to go to Burari ground and want to carry out their protest at Jantar Mantar.”
However, the Delhi-Ghaziabad border has not been sealed, police said.
Sukhwinder Singh, who has been agitating at the Tikri border for the fifth consecutive day, said farmers will continue to protest at the Delhi borders as they don’t want to go to Burari ground.
“We have enough ration to sustain for at least six months. We do not wish to go to Burari. If we proceed from here, we will only go to Jantar Mantar. We will not protest anywhere else,” Singh said.
He said that they are ready for talks with the Centre, but if they do not find solutions despite talks, they will block all the ways leading towards Delhi.
“We will not leave from here (Tikri Border) unless their demands are met. We are ready to face cold weather, we are ready to face every challenge ahead,” Singh said.
A medical camp has also been set up at Singhu border, which is being run by two individual doctors.
Dr Sarika Verma, who has come from Gurgaon, was quoted by PTI as saying, “We have come here today. We are helping farmers at our own level. We have blood pressure medicine, PCM, crocin and other medicines.”
“The farmers are not so much aware about COVID-19 . Many of them are not wearing masks, which poses a threat to human lives. We are distributing masks especially to those who have cough and the elderly here,” Verma said.
Another doctor Karan Juneja said that he has distributed basic medicines to 300 farmers, adding that there is need to conduct the COVID-19 test at the protest site.
Traffic continued to be disrupted in the national capital due to the protests.
Taking to twitter, the Delhi Traffic Police on Monday alerted commuters to take an alternate route since Singhu and Tikri borders continued to remain closed.
“Singhu Border is still closed from both sides. Please take alternate route. Traffic has been diverted from Mukarba Chowk & GTK road. Traffic is very very heavy. Please avoid outer ring road from signature bridge to Rohini & vice versa, GTK road, NH 44 & Singhu borders,” it tweeted.
In another tweet, it said, “Tikri border is closed for any Traffic Movement. Available Open Borders to Haryana are following Borders Jharoda, Dhansa, Daurala Jhatikera, Badusari, Kapashera, Rajokri NH 8,Bijwasan/Bajghera, Palam Vihar and Dundahera borders.”
As experts worry about COVID, farmers say new laws are bigger threat
While the farmers are determined to see their cause through to the end, the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic continues to loom large.
Experts have warned the agitation could well be a COVID-19 superspreader but farmers, some in masks and many without them, say the new farm laws pose a greater threat to their survival, PTI reported.
As thousands of farmers, mostly from Punjab and Haryana but also from Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan, protest at Delhi’s border points and in north Delhi’s Burari ground for the fifth day on Monday, the COVID-19 infection continues to spread.
There have been few signs of social distancing during the protests that started last week with the farmers, banded under various organisations, leaving their homes and moving towards Delhi.
“A protest is a mass gathering and thus from a public health perspective, I would urge protective and preventive behaviour against the spread of coronavirus infection, failing which a superspreading event might set in,” cautioned Dr Samiran Panda, head of the Epidemiology and Communicable Diseases division at the Indian Council of Medical Research.
Seeking strict compliance with norms, he said, “It is important to note that SARS-COV-2 is a transmission efficient virus and such gatherings are conducive to its spread.”
Many of the farmers, threatening to block all five entry points into the capital, said they are aware the infection is still raging but the Centre’s new farm laws are a bigger threat.
Gurmeet Singh from Faridkot in Punjab, for instance, has been at the Burari ground, one of the largest in the city, for three days and counting. And he has no intention of moving.
For him, and hundreds of other farmers at the North Delhi ground where they were allowed to congregate, the three contentious farm laws are a bigger disease.
“We may even survive corona, but how will we survive this cruel law that will take away our bread and butter,” Gurmeet told PTI.
In another corner of the sprawling ground, a team of seven medicos from Delhi’s AAP government has tested over 90 farmers for COVID-19 since 28 November. “There have been no positives as yet,” said a medical officer on the condition of anonymity.
“We tested 40 people on the 28th, then another team took over, and today we have tested 50 people so far,” the officer said.
Several e-rickshaws roamed the ground to create awareness of the disease and the necessity of wearing masks and maintaining hand hygiene. But the message appeared to be getting drowned out in the slogans, protest songs and speeches.
Gursharanjeet Singh from Bilaspur, Uttar Pradesh, said his family is entirely dependent on produce from their six-acre farm.
“If we stay careful we won’t get corona, but if we don’t protest against these farm laws and this government we will definitely die of hunger,” he said.
His desperation finds resonance at the Singhu and Tikri border points, where farmers have been camping in large numbers. Some volunteers were distributing masks to the protesting farmers.
Delhi has already been witnessing a spike in COVID-19 cases post Diwali celebrations and with pollution levels increasing. On Sunday, the city recorded 4,906 new COVID-19 cases on Sunday and 68 fatalities, taking the total number of cases to 5,66,648 with 5,22,491 recoveries.
The number of India cases is 94,31,691 with 38,772 new infections, according to Union Health Ministry data on Monday.
With inputs from agencies
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