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 Now, the traffic has been replaced by an almost 2-kilometer (1.2-mile) stretch of supply stores, a medical department and a library – all part of a colorful, bustling hamlet of tents that’s been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Wherever they are from, all have just one aim: to get the three new farming laws passed in September last year repealed.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.”
And there are people besides the protesters, too. Young children dash through the camp, trying to scavenge things to sell elsewhere. Vendors from nearby villages spread out pro-farmer badges on blankets and curious onlookers from nearby areas come to see what’s going on.
But all this belies the serious reason why they’re there – that for many this is a matter of life or death.
Farmers say the new laws aimed at bringing more market freedom to the industry will make it easier for corporations to exploit agricultural workers – and leave them struggling to meet the minimum price that they were guaranteed for certain crops under the previous rules.
And while the mood within the camp is calm and relaxed, there’s a constant reminder that not everyone supports the farmers’ fight.
Large barricades erected by the police and topped with barbed wire stand a few hundred meters from the hubbub of camp life, hemming the farmers in and keeping them from encroaching any closer to the center of Delhi. Security forces line the sides of the camp, keeping watch for any trouble, although they have not tried to clear the camp – likely because it would be politically unpopular.
The farmers say the barricades make them seem like outsiders – like they are foreigners in their own land who don’t belong here.
“The government is treating us like we are Chinese, sitting on the other side of the fence,” Kuldeep Singh said, referring to the tense border dispute currently taking place between India and China in the Himalayas.
Difficulty for protesters
As the months have worn on, protesting has become harder.
The winter temperatures have dropped to below 10 degrees Celsius (50 degrees Farenheit) at night. And tensions have ramped up during the protests. Last week, internet access was blocked in several districts of a state bordering India’s capital following violent clashes between police and farmers there protesting the controversial agricultural reforms.
The government has been criticized not only for the controversial farm laws themselves, but also how it has handled the demonstrations. At the end of January, India’s main opposition party, the Congress Party, and 15 other opposition parties, said Prime Minister Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) party have been “arrogant, adamant and undemocratic in their response.”
“(Hundreds and thousands) of farmers have been … braving biting cold and heavy rain for the last 64 days for their rights and justice,” they wrote in a joint statement. “The government remains unmoved and has responded with water cannons, tear gas and lathi charges. Every effort has been made to discredit a legitimate mass movement through government sponsored disinformation campaign.”
According to Samyukta Kisan Morcha, the umbrella body of protesting farmers, at least 147 farmers have died during the course of the monthslong protests from a range of causes, including suicide, road accidents and exposure to cold weather. Authorities have not given an official figure on protester deaths.
Nevertheless, farmers are continuing to arrive at the camps, Samyukta Kisan Morcha said earlier this week.
“Typically these village groups work against each other but this time they have all united for the collective fight,” said Paramjeet Singh Katyal, a spokesperson for Samyukta Kisan Morcha.
What happens next
Protests are fairly common in India, the world’s largest democracy. And it’s not the first time that large protests have rocked the country. In 2019, India’s parliament passed a controversial bill that gave Indian citizenship to immigrants from three neighboring countries, but not if they are Muslim, prompting mass demonstrations.
But these protests are a particular challenge for Modi.
Agriculture is the primary source of livelihood for 58% of India’s 1.3 billion population, making farmers the biggest voter block in the country. Angering the farmers could lose Modi a significant chunk of votes at the next general election in 2024. Modi and his government continue to insist that they are supporting farmers, and called the new laws as a “watershed moment” which will ensure a complete transformation of the agriculture sector. Besides calling the move long overdue, Modi has not said why he opted to introduce these measures during the pandemic, which has caused India to suffer its first recession in decades.
In a statement issued this week, the Indian government said that the protests “must be seen in the context of India’s democratic ethos and polity, and the ongoing efforts of the government and the concerned farmer groups to resolve the impasse,” and that certain measures, such as the temporary internet block, were “undertaken to prevent further violence.”
The camps have also created a headache for nearby commuters and trucks bringing food into Delhi – people who would have traveled on the expressway at Ghazipur are forced to take different routes, sometimes doubling their travel time.
But the farmers are showing no interest in backing down.
Rounds of talks have failed to make any headway. Although the Supreme Court put three contentious farm orders on hold last month and ordered the formation of a four-member mediation committee to help the parties negotiate, farmers’ leaders have rejected any court-appointed mediation committee.
Last month, central government offered to suspend the laws for 1.5 years – but to farmers, all of this is not far enough.
Sanjit Baliyan, 25, has been at the camp for over a month, working at the supply tent. He points out that farmers have done a lot for Modi’s government, only for Modi to introduce a law that removes any minimum prices for their stocks.
“We haven’t spoken against the government for last seven years. But, if we are at receiving end, we will have to speak,” he said.
Some, like 50-year-old farmer Babu Ram, want the protests to end. “A prolonged protest is neither good for the farmers nor for the government. The protest, if it’s stretched, will create a ruckus.”
But he added: “This protest will only end once the government agrees to our demands … we have to stay here till the end.”
While Kuldeep Singh agrees that there’s hardship – farmers’ households have cut their own consumption to contribute to the protest camps – he says farmers will only leave once the laws are repealed. “We will sit here for the next three years. We will sit till the elections, till the laws are scrapped.”
Jouranlist Rishabh Pratap and Esha Mitra contributed to this story from New Delhi.