Tens of thousands of farmers gathered on the outskirts of India’s capital New Delhi on Tuesday, ahead of a tractor procession aimed at protesting a controversial set of agricultural laws. Growers, angry at what they see as laws that help large, private buyers at the expense of producers, have been camped outside Delhi for almost two months.
Thousands more, on tractors decorated with the flags of India and farm unions, have been streaming into the capital from neighbouring states for several days ahead of the rally that coincides with India’s Republic Day. “We will follow the instructions of our leaders and conduct a peaceful march,” said Sukhjinder Singh, a 30-year-old protestor from Punjab at Singhu, one of the main protest sites.
Around half of India’s population works in agriculture, and unrest among the estimated 150 million land-owning farmers represents one of the biggest challenges to the authority of Prime Minister Narendra Modi since he came to power in 2014. Nine rounds of talks between the two sides have failed to end the protests. The government’s offer to delay the farm laws for 18 months has been rejected by farm leaders, who want a total repeal of the laws.
“The farm organizations have a very strong hold,” said Ambar Kumar Ghosh, an analyst at the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation think-tank. “They have the resources to mobilize support, and to continue the protest for a long time. They have also been very successful in keeping the protest really focused.”
Police have allowed farmers to rally along pre-approved routes on the outskirts of Delhi on Tuesday.
But the tractor march threatens to overshadow the annual Republic Day military parade in the centre of the capital, held to mark the anniversary of the introduction of India’s Constitution in 1950. “They (farmers) could have chosen any other day instead of January 26 but they have announced now,” India’s Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar told local media on Monday.
“Conducting the rally peacefully without any accident would be the concern for farmers as well as police administration.” The protests have so far been peaceful, and farm leaders have urged participants in Tuesday’s rally to refrain from violence.