NEW DELHI: Indian farmers burnt copies of the government’s new agricultural laws on Wednesday, pressing on with their protest against the reforms despite a decision by the Supreme Court to postpone implementation while their grievances are heard.
Tens of thousands of farmers have been camped on the outskirts of the capital, New Delhi, for almost two months, protesting against what they say are laws designed to benefit large private buyers at the expense of growers. The government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi denies this, saying the legislation is required to reform an agricultural sector beset by waste.
At several protest sites on Wednesday, farmers threw copies of the three new laws on bonfires lit for the Hindu Lohri mid-winter festival. “These laws are not in farmers’ interests,” said Gursevak Singh, 32, one of the protesters involved in the burning at a protest site in Ghaziabad, a satellite city of New Delhi. “We want the government to use their brains and repeal these laws.”
Unrest among India’s estimated 150 million farmers represents one of the biggest challenges to Modi’s rule since his Bharatiya Janata Party won a second term in power in 2019.
One of the BJP’s coalition partners resigned when the laws were first introduced in September, and the issue risks uniting India’s often-fractioned opposition.
India’s Supreme Court on Tuesday ordered a temporary suspension of the laws while a four-member committee looks into the protesters’ grievances.
But farm leaders have refused to cooperate with the committee and say they will intensify their protests, including around Republic Day celebrations in the capital later this month.
“We expect to mobilise up to two million farmers across the country on January 26,” Kulwant Singh Sandhu, general secretary of Jamhuri Kisan Sabha, one of the main farm unions, told international media.
Farmers have consistently called for the total repeal of the laws, though the government says there is “no question” of this happening.
Eight rounds of talks have failed to break the deadlock. The two sides are next due to meet on Friday.
Earlier, India’s Supreme Court has paused the implementation of three new farm laws being fiercely opposed by farmers, who have been holding a large protest on the outskirts of the Indian capital for more than a month.
The court will form a committee to hear farmers’ grievances against the laws, Chief Justice Sharad Arvind Bobde said during a hearing on Tuesday. “We are staying three farm laws until further orders,” Bobde said. “We have the power to make a committee and the committee can give us the report,” he said, ordering the stay for an undisclosed period on the laws passed in September. “We will protect farmers.”
Pulling up the Centre for its handling of the farmers’ protest, the apex court on Monday said it is “extremely disappointed” with the way negotiations between them were going and will constitute a committee headed by a former Chief Justice of India to resolve the impasse. The apex court also issued notice on the Delhi Police’s application filed seeking to stop the proposed tractor rally by protesting farmers on Republic Day. Farmers may apply for permission to the Delhi Police Commissioner for protests at Ramlila Maidan or other locations, CJI added.
Senior advocates Dushyant Dave, HS Phoolka, Colin Gonsalves, who represents 400 farmers’ bodies, were not present during the Supreme Court’s proceedings on Tuesday. “They were supposed to consult the farmers on formation of a committee and come back today,” said senior advocate Harish Salve.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has ruled out repealing the laws despite widespread protests from farmers and other workers’ groups across the country. Modi’s government says the legislation aims to modernise an antiquated agricultural system, which suffers from colossal wastage and bottlenecks in the supply chain. But farm leaders say the laws are an attempt to erode a longstanding minimum support price for their crops, and will enable a few corporates to control the country’s vast agricultural sector. Despite freezing conditions, thousands of farmers have been camping out on the outskirts of New Delhi since late November. At least eight rounds of talks between the government and farmers’ groups could not break the deadlock.