Protesting Indian farmers press on with demands amid elections

Farmers' protest
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In Punjab, the interest level in elections is low due to the farmers’ movement.

For almost three to three-and-half months a lot of farmers have been sitting at protest sites.

Living in furnace-like conditions in the middle of a national highway as they braved gusts of heatwave that fiercely beat against their burnished faces, hundreds of Indian farmers have been camping for over 100 days between Punjab and Haryana states to demand better prices for their crops.

Despite the savage spell of heatwave sweeping large swathes of northern India, the farmers have stationed themselves at the Shambhu border since their protest began in mid-February.

But living in makeshift homes made of tractor-trolleys covered with tarpaulin can make temperatures that hit 45-46 degrees Celsius feel like 50 degrees Celsius.

Start of protest

On 13 February, thousands of Punjab’s farmers launched a “Delhi Chalo” (Let’s go to Delhi) march, setting out for the capital in trucks and tractors loaded with bedding and food.

However, security forces in riot gear, used teargas and water cannons to force them to halt about 200 km short of their destination, where they have camped since, dwindling to just hundreds.

Most farmers and leaders have no intention of calling off their protest or going home until their demands are met.

“They have decided to sit and will continue to sit despite the problem of dehydration, less availability of drinking water or other facilities, but they are still sitting and have a firm determination,” said Dharamvir Dhinsa, a farmer leader from the neighbouring district of Ambala.

A medical relief tent at the site has been working overtime, providing first-aid to those suffering heat-related illnesses.

Hundreds of patients were being treated for various ailments on a daily basis, out of which the vast majority are suffering from heat-related problems, including nausea, dehydration and heat strokes, said Dr. Swaran Singh Kansal as he attended to patients.

Most were treated on the spot but those more seriously ill were sent to nearby hospitals for proper care, he said.

Farmers’ demands

The farmer groups are seeking guarantees, backed by law, of more state support or a minimum purchase price for crops.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, following a similar year-long protest, repealed some farm reform laws in 2021 and committed to setting up a panel to find ways to ensure support prices for all produce. Farmers accuse the government of going slow on that commitment.

Voting in India’s national elections began on April 19 and will conclude on June 1, with results due on June 4.

With polls in Punjab due on Saturday (June 1) during the last and seventh phase of the staggered elections, farmers said they are not keen on voting this time and that Modi Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will not find much support in the state.

Many said they had been let down by all political parties who had promised much but delivered next to nothing.

At the last meeting with leaders of farmers’ unions, the government proposed minimum support prices to farmers who diversify their crops to grow cotton, pigeon peas, black mate, red lentils, and corn, but the leaders rejected this offer, demanding that other grains also be covered.

BJP and his government have not commented much on the farmers’ protests but have, in the past, said they are committed to the welfare and prosperity of farmers and are ready to discuss all issues.