Tens of thousands of farmers like Mr Vyas from the neighbouring states of Punjab and Haryana are now in a grinding standoff with Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party-led government, demanding the repeal of three market-friendly laws. Taken together, the contentious reforms will loosen rules around the sale, pricing and storage of farm produce – rules that have protected India’s farmers from an unfettered free market for decades.
For nearly a week, the protesting farmers, joined by their families and friends, have braved water cannons and tear gas and choked the capital’s borders. They have set up camps, cooked and slept in the open in the bitter cold. “This protest is unique. It is not driven by politics or religion. In fact, politicians are reacting to it,” says Devinder Sharma, a food and trade policy analyst. In September, a key ally of the government quit in protest against the laws.
Farmers have been on the boil in India for some years now. More than half of Indians work on farms, but farming accounts for barely a sixth of the country’s GDP. Declining productivity and lack of modernisation have long hobbled progress. Plot sizes are shrinking, as are incomes from farming. Prices can be wildly erratic and middlemen form cartels and gobble up much of the profits. “The anger over injustice to farmers was brewing. Now it’s getting channelised through this protest against the new laws,” Mr Sharma says.