India has been hit by severe road and rail traffic disruptions as farmers and opposition activists intensified their campaign against new laws intended to pave the way for the reform of agricultural markets.
The nationwide strike, in support of thousands of protesting farmers who have massed at New Delhi’s state border for the past 12 days, presents an awkward political challenge to Narendra Modi.
The Indian prime minister revels in his image as a strongman able to impose his will on an unruly nation but his Bharatiya Janata Party has been trying to woo farmers.
Analysts said pushing big agricultural commodity market reforms, which affect millions of people, without any serous public consultation was a recipe for unrest.
“The new law is a death warrant for farmers like me and even for the general public,” said Rasam Singh, 55, who was helping to blockade a highway in Punjab on Tuesday.
“But this government has made it an ego issue. They don’t want to listen to us.”
The trio of contentious farm bills was rammed through a truncated parliamentary session in a chaotic voice vote in September, despite serious doubts about the government’s majority. Several BJP allies, mindful of farmers’ anxiety, wanted more time to scrutinise the bills’ implications but the requests were not granted.
“He’s [Mr Modi] caught himself in a bind,” said Yamini Aiyer, president of the Centre for Policy Research, a New Delhi-based think-tank. “This whole thing was political mismanagement, just thinking you could bulldoze your way through. The result is a complete breakdown in trust.
“This is a very major reform, but getting reform right requires deep consensus building, negotiating and engagement.”
Ajay Jakhar, chairman of the Bharat Krishak Samaj, or Indian Farmers Forum, called the laws “a perfect example of a government policy made by the bureaucracy without consulting the supposed beneficiaries. They were fixated on the outcome of passing the bill, and they just ran roughshod over the process.”
The new rules effectively end a socialist-era requirement that farmers sell their crops to licensed middlemen at government regulated market yards. Mr Modi insists the system will “liberate” farmers, enabling them to deal with more buyers and earn higher prices.
But farmers fear the liberalisation presages the eventual demise of state-run mandi — where are now used to determine the fair value of crops — leaving them at the mercy of powerful corporate interests.
Although state-run markets are not being abolished, farmers will be able to sell their crops to anyone who wants to buy them.
“It’s a dramatic act of deregulation,” Mekhala Krishnamurthy, an Ashoka University anthropologist who studies agricultural markets. “People who believe that the current system protects them are scared.”
Farmers are also anxious that authorities are debating reforms of India’s inefficient public food procurement programme. The programme entails the state-owned Food Corporation of India buying tons of wheat and rice at fixed prices to distribute to the poor as subsidised food aid.
“There is the sense that procurement reform is imminent and this is the beginning of that,” Ms Krishnamurthy said.
In a bid to assuage farmers’ fears and encourage them to return home, government ministers last week engaged in several days of negotiations, offering to amend the contentious bills. But farmers’ unions are demanding their full repeal, and have dug in for the long haul.
“It’s genuinely very difficult to see how this is going to get resolved without a significant show by the government that they are willing to step down,” said Ms Krishnamurthy. “I don’t know whether face-saving of some kind is possible. It’s a very tough one.”
Additional reporting by Jyotsna Singh in New Delhi