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Farmer agitation continues in India upon death of protester and failure of talks

By APARAJIT CHAKRABORTY in New Delhi | chinadaily.com.cn | Updated: 2024-02-22 21:14

Farmers, who are marching towards New Delhi to press for the better crop prices promised to them in 2021, run for cover amidst tear gas smoke fired by police to disperse them at Shambhu, a border crossing between Punjab and Haryana states, India, Feb 13, 2024. [Photo/Agencies]

As an impasse between the Indian government and protesting farmers continues over demands for guaranteed crop prices, a 21-year-old protester succumbed to his injuries on the night of Feb 21 in a state bordering the national capital, New Delhi.

The death, which the farmers' union says resulted from police action, has sparked anger and prompted calls to intensify the agitation. Farm groups have scheduled a national coordination committee meeting later on Feb 22 to discuss their next course of movement and take decisive action to advance the struggle.

The protests come at a time when national elections are due in April and May, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi's party is aiming to secure a third successive term in office.

The victim, identified as Subhkaran Singh, received bullet injuries in his head during a clash with police at Khanauri, a town near Punjab-Haryana state border, and later died in a hospital, Gurnam Singh Chaduni, a prominent farmer leader who is leading the protest, told China Daily. The farmers claimed that Haryana police personnel fired rubber bullets, besides tear gas shells.

Haryana police, however, have denied the claim, stating that it was a rumor.

Khanauri, around 180 km from New Delhi, is a gateway connecting the states of Punjab and Haryana, whose shared borders have become protest sites for the farmers attempting to reach New Delhi. The majority of the protesting farmers are from the two states.

The protester's death is the first such fatality since the protest began on Feb 13. And the incident has led to fresh political bitterness between the opposition and federal government.

On Feb 21, police fired tear gas at Shambu, a village in Punjab near the border with Haryana, on farmers as they resumed their march and tried to move towards the barricades stalling their travel to New Delhi after four rounds of talks with the federal government failed to yield an agreement.

To press the federal government to accept their demands, including a legal guarantee for minimum support price, or MSP, for crops and farm debt waiver, the farmers have been camping at the border points since Feb 13 along with tractor-trolleys, mini-vans and pickup trucks

The protesting farmers were stopped at the Shambhu border last week.

Federal Agriculture Minister Arjun Munda said on Feb 22 that though several rounds of discussions were held with the farmers, more efforts have to be made from both sides to reach a consensus

Amidst the clashes between farmers and police, the minister called for a fifth round of talks with the farmers and advocated for peace.

In Haryana, the government has been criticized by the opposition for using drones to drop tear gas shells on the protesting farmers last week.

Haryana is governed by Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), while Punjab is governed by an opposition group, the Aam Aadmi Party.

"We want to go to Delhi in a peaceful manner. The government should remove the barricades," said Ramveer Singh, a protesting farmer.

"In 2014, before the national election, PM Modi had assured that if his party came to government the MSP would be ensured. But still the federal government did not meet our demand," said Chaduni, the farmer leader.

Last week, the farmers paused the protest as their unions engaged in discussions with federal government ministers.

They rejected a proposal from the government that offered them five-year contracts of guaranteed prices on a set of certain crops, including maize, grain legumes and cotton. And they resumed their march on Feb 21.

The protesters are seeking a new legislation that would guarantee minimum prices for 23 crops.

Karori Singh, former director and emeritus fellow of the South Asia Studies Centre at the University of Rajasthan, said the farmers seem to be tough negotiators, armed with information and data in support of their demands.

As elections are approaching, the government may fulfill some main demands during the next round of negotiation to pacify and satisfy the farming community, Singh said.

Jayati Ghosh, a development economist, said that if other crops are also brought under the MSP regime, it would help provide sustainable financial support to the farmers.

It is only when the price drops below the MSP that the government would need to step in and buy just enough that the price rises above the minimum set bar, she said.

"Many large corporations can get away with all kinds of loan waivers but the farmers are asking a small fraction of that and are treated as criminals," said Ghosh.

Farmer suicides in India have been alarmingly high in recent years due to debt and bankruptcy woes. As per data from India's National Crime Records Bureau, as many as 11,290 people associated with farming took their own lives in 2022.

The writer is a freelance journalist for China Daily.

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