In the dusty expanse where New Delhi’s urban sprawl meets the vast Indian hinterland, thousands of farmers have been massed for over a month in one of the biggest challenges facing Narendra Modi in his six years as prime minister.
Nestled between brightly coloured trucks, the new arrivals of this makeshift city gather around fires to ward off the winter chill. Horses chomp on roughage while volunteers distribute food, medicines and books.
Over the past month, farmers travelled hundreds of miles, mostly from the north-western states Punjab and Haryana, to protest a trio of sweeping new laws intended to open up India’s agricultural markets to greater private competition.
They fear the reforms are an attempt to dismantle the state-backed safeguards on which they depend, with catastrophic consequences for often precarious livelihoods.
The government sought to reconcile with protesters, meeting for rounds of negotiation over the laws to little avail. Authorities have invited the farmers for more talks on Wednesday.
“We’ve been suffering since 1947 [India’s independence]. The government has ignored us and our problems,” said Morha Singh, a 34-year-old rice and wheat farmer. “We’ve cultivated the land and now they’re trying to give it to corporates.”
Mr Singh said he would not leave until Mr Modi and his ruling Bharatiya Janata party backed down, putting the prime minister — who vowed to overhaul outdated regulation and turbocharge economic growth — in a deadlock.
“Modi can’t stop us,” Mr Singh said. “They have to surrender in front of farmers. They have to withdraw and repeal the bills.”
Reforming agriculture, which supports more than half of India’s largely rural 1.4bn population directly or indirectly, is a perennial demand of politicians, economists and even farmers. In much of the country, productivity remains low, farmers lack options for trade and produce rots before it reaches consumers owing to broken supply chains.
The new laws aim to allow private trade outside state-regulated market yards and open up contract farming between producers and companies. The reforms “will ultimately lead to a better life and enhancement of their incomes,” Narendra Singh Tomar, the agriculture minister told reporters last week.
Yet the BJP’s handling of the process has alienated even potential supporters. It rammed the laws through a compressed parliament in September, when India’s coronavirus crisis was at its peak. Critics say its tactics undermined democratic norms and failed to build consensus with farmer groups.
“The process to bring the reforms was completely unacceptable,” said Kapil Shah, a farmer-rights activist in Gujarat. “Reforms are required, but not in this way and not of this kind.”
Domestic allies, including a party in Mr Modi’s ruling coalition, broke with him over the measures. Economists who believe more reforms are needed — such as to labour or banking laws — fear the backlash will ultimately reduce the prime minister’s desire to pick further fights, hindering long-term growth.
“This is going to make the government more averse to reforms,” said Shumita Deveshwar, a senior director at research firm TS Lombard. “It’s a vicious cycle.”
Many of India’s agricultural policies were shaped by the need to ensure food security for its enormous population after independence. In states such as Punjab, for example, farmers grow wheat and rice to sell in government market yards at guaranteed prices.
This model, critics say, curtails crop diversity, depletes water resources and allows wealthy farmers to thrive over others. Many economists believe allowing competitive, private channels for trade, which already flourish in some Indian states, will boost productivity and diversify output.
Others say the new laws fail to offer adequate protections for a fragmented farm sector weakened by years of stagnation, even if farmers in Punjab earn higher incomes relative to other states. They argue small farmers would struggle to get good deals with agribusinesses without more bargaining power.
The farmers’ ultimate fear is that the reforms signal the beginning of the end for the guaranteed price system — something the government denies.
“Farmers are reacting to years of under-investment,” said Mekhala Krishnamurthy, an anthropologist who studies Indian agricultural markets at Ashoka University. “If you want to pursue a strategy which is more market based, you have to do a lot more work before farmers see this as a credible strategy.”
The coronavirus pandemic and ensuing lockdown, which prompted a mass migration out of cities to rural areas, highlighted how even a dysfunctional farming system was the only safety net for hundreds of millions of Indians.
“If I were a farmer, I would be nervous too,” said Avinash Kishore, an economist at the International Food Policy Research Institute.
Mr Tomar said the government has been a victim of its own success. “There was talk of various political parties all the time to undertake these reforms,” said Mr Tomar. “Because we were able to execute these reforms in a big way . . . the real opposition has started.”
But the tone of the debate was poisoned early on. Many of the protesters are from India’s Sikh religious minority and members of the BJP sought to discredit the farmers by accusing them of being Sikh separatists, echoing the demonisation of Muslim protesters after the government passed a contentious religion-based citizen law last year.
Farmers marching on New Delhi last month were met with water cannons and tear gas.
One of those taking part in the protests is Harshdeep Panaich, a 23-year-old farmer with a handlebar moustache, who is hopeful their action will force New Delhi to listen to them.
“Sikhs never bow in front of anyone. If anything is wrong they always speak up,” he said. Mr Modi “meets Bollywood actors but not us. You’re our prime minister, you have to face people.”