On a key highway into India’s capital, men are doing their laundry in washing machines set up under a makeshift tent.
Just three months ago, this six-lane expressway was a busy thoroughfare for commuters and large trucks bringing supplies into New Delhi. Now, the traffic has been replaced by an almost 2-kilometer (1.2-mile) stretch of supply stores, a medical department and a library – all part of a colorful, bustling hamlet of tents that’s been home to thousands of farmers for months.
In November, farmers infuriated by new agricultural reforms drove in tractor conveys from around India to set up multiple blockades at the city’s borders.
This camp at Ghazipur on the border between Delhi and the neighboring state of Uttar Pradesh is one of three major temporary settlements on the outskirts of the capital. Almost everyone here is from neighboring Uttar Pradesh, but farmers at other camps have come from states including Haryana and Punjab – the latter is known as the “bread basket of India” due to its large food production industry.
Wherever they are from, all have just one aim: to get the three new farming laws passed in September last year repealed. Farmers say the laws will hurt their income and devastate their livelihoods, but the government says they are needed to modernize the country’s agricultural industry. That dispute has galvanized some of the biggest protests seen since Prime Minister Narendra Modi assumed office in 2014.
Around 10,000 people – mainly men, both young and old – are stationed at Ghazipur alone, according to camp leaders, although the number fluctuates from day-to-day as farmers split their time between their homes and the camp. Many have family members minding their farms, allowing them to stay in the capital for long stretches.
The farmers face challenges – the cold winter temperatures, clashes with police and security forces, and restrictions on their internet access, among others. Despite that, farmers say they have no plans to leave until the government overturns the laws.
A makeshift town
Here at Ghazipur, the camp hums along like a well-oiled machine.
By night, the farmers who choose to stay asleep in brightly colored tents pitched on the road, or on mattresses underneath their tractors (and in hundreds of vans and trucks). By day, many help run the camp.
All their basic needs are catered for. There are portable toilets – although the stench makes it unpleasant to get too close. There’s also a supply store which has plastic crates of shampoo sachets and tissues – these supplies, like all those in the camp, were donated either by farmers or supporters of the farmers’ cause.
Water is brought in from nearby civic stations. Jagjeet Singh, a 26-year-old from Bijnor, Uttar Pradesh, uses his tractor to bring back 4,000 liter (1,057 gallon) tanks of water each day (he brings in about 10 to 12 such tanks a day) that can be used for drinking, bathing, and cleaning. Some men stand by the tank washing the grimy black mud from the wet road off their shoes and legs.
Meals are cooked over a small gas fire in a cast iron pan held up by fire-blackened bricks, and provided for free from inside of a tent that’s been constructed from bamboo poles and plastic. A farmer wearing blue medical gloves scoops pakora – a kind of spiced fritter – into bowls for farmers who are wrapped in scarves, jackets and hats to brave against Delhi’s winter chill. Nearby, cauliflower and potatoes burst out of burlap sacks.
Kuldeep Singh, a 36-year-old farmer, helps to prepare the meals. He came here over 60 days ago. Like many others, his family are helping cover his work back home, although he goes back and forth between the camp and his farm.
“Be it the work back home or the camp, both are equally important,” he said.
Himanshi Rana, a 20-year-old volunteer operating the camp’s makeshift medical center, has also been here for more than two months. She helps treat people’s diseases, and tended to farmers who were hit by tear gas during violent demonstrations on January 26 – India’s Republic Day. On that day, thousands of protesters stormed New Delhi’s historic Red Fort as police used tear gas and batons against the demonstrators. One protester died, although protesters and police disagree over the cause of death.
“My father is a farmer, I am a farmer’s daughter. Me being here is inevitable,” she said. “We are here to serve the people … we will stay put until the government agrees to the demands.”
One thing the protesters are not asking for are face masks. Despite India reporting the most coronavirus cases of any country in the world bar the United States, no farmers at Ghazipur are wearing face coverings.
Farmers at Ghazipur say they’re not worried about coronavirus – according to Rana, they believe that they have strong immunity from their physical labor, meaning they’re not scared of catching it.
What life is like in the camps
The mood of the camp is joyful, more like a festival than a demonstration.
The camp itself is a kind of protest – the farmers are blocking the road to help bring awareness to their cause. It’s also the base for demonstrations, including the rally that turned violent on Republic Day.
For many, there are hours of downtime when they’re not helping run the camp or holding demonstrations. A group of men sit in a circle smoking hookah pipes, while others play cards on a blanket. More than a dozen men sit or stand on a red tractor, playing a pro-farmer song from the speakers as they ride through the camp. There’s a library for the youngsters that includes books on revolutions in multiple languages.
Every now and again, a group breaks into a chant. “We’ll be here until the government gives in!”
As the water collector Jagjeet Singh puts it: “I don’t feel like I am away from home.”