Thousands of farmers from 21 districts of Maharashtra – among tens of thousands across India who are protesting the centre’s agriculture laws – gathered at Nashik on Saturday and began a march to cover the 180 kilometres to state capital Mumbai.
Dramatic visuals showed a sea of farmers – many of whom were waving flags and carrying banners – snaking their way through the roads of the Kasara Ghat region between the two cities.
The farmers – who are drawn from several smaller unions and have gathered themselves under the banner of the All India Kisan Sabha – are expected to reach Mumbai in a few hours, where they will participate in a rally at the famous Azad Maidan on Monday.
NCP chief Sharad Pawar, whose party is party of the ruling Maha Vikas Aghadi government, is expected to attend that rally.
Less than two weeks ago Mr Pawar referred to the protesting farmers – particularly those who have braved winter chills to remain camped out around Delhi since November – and warned the centre of “consequences” if it failed to understand their sentiments.
Last month he issued a similar warning and said the centre should not test farmers’ patience.
The Nashik farmers’ march comes two days before a headline-grabbing tractor rally on Republic Day.
Over a thousand tractors are expected to take part in the rally along Ring Road (which encircles the city), and permission for which has been sought from Delhi Police.
On Saturday, the farmers said had received permission but this was swiftly contradicted by the police; Commissioner SN Shrivastava told NDTV the cops had yet to receive written confirmation of the route.
A decision is expected this evening.
The centre, which has held 11 failed negotiations with the farmers, is against the rally; it told the Supreme Court the event would be an “embarrassment for the nation“.
A request to the court to halt the rally was turned down, with the decision left to the police.
The court had earlier upheld the farmers’ right to hold a peaceful protest.
Protesting farmers have turned down a proposal to suspend the laws for 18 months.
They continue to insist – as they have since their protests began 60 days ago – that all three laws be scrapped and that the centre provide legal guarantees for MSP (minimum support price).
The centre, which is equally insistent that the laws will benefit farmers, has said it will offer only written guarantees for MSP and that the laws will remain, although it is open to amendments.
Last week the Supreme Court put implementation of the agriculture laws on hold, and set up a committee of experts to resolve the long-standing dispute.
With input from PTI