Indian farmers mark 100th day of protest with road blockade

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Indian farmers drink water sitting at the back of their tractor trolly as they camp at Singhu, along the Delhi-Haryana border, Friday, March 5, 2021. Saturday marks 100 days of the ongoing farmer protests against the contentious new agricultural reform laws which have led tens of thousands of farmers to blockade key highways leading to the capital. Multiple rounds of talks have failed to produce any breakthrough on the farmers’ key demand to revoke the legislation. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup)

NEW DELHI (AP) — Thousands of Indian farmers blocked a massive expressway on the edges of New Delhi on Saturday to mark the 100th day of protests against agricultural laws they say will devastate their income.

Farmers stood on tractors and waved colorful flags while their leaders chanted slogans via a loudspeaker atop a makeshift stage.

Thousands of them have hunkered down outside New Delhi’s borders since late November to voice their anger against three laws passed by Parliament last year. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government says the laws are necessary to modernize agriculture but farmers say they will leave them poorer and at the mercy of big corporations.

Samyukta Kisan Morcha, or Joint Farmers’ Front, said the blockade would last five hours. “It is not our hobby to block roads, but the government is not listening to us. What can we do?” said Satnam Singh, a member of the group.

The farmers have remained undeterred even after violence erupted on Jan. 26 during clashes with police that left one protester dead and hundreds injured. But they could soon run into problems.

For 100 days, Karnal Singh, has lived inside the back of a trailer along a vast stretch of arterial highway that connects India’s north with New Delhi. He camped outside the capital when it was under the grip of winter and smog. Now, the city is bracing for scorching summer temperatures that can hit 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit).

But Singh, like many other farmers, is unfazed and plans to stay until the laws are completely withdrawn.

“We are not going anywhere and will fight till the end,” Singh, 60, said on Friday, as he sat cross-legged inside a makeshift shelter in the back of his truck.

The mood at the Singhu border, one of the protest sites, was boisterous on Friday, with many farmers settling into their surroundings for the long haul.

Huge soup kitchens that feed thousands daily were still running. Farmers thronged both sides of the highway and hundreds of trucks have been turned into rooms, fitted with water coolers in preparation for the summer. Electric fans and air conditioners are also being installed in some trailers.

Farmers say the protests will spread across the country soon. The government, however, is hoping many of them will return home once India’s major harvesting season begins at the end of the month.

Karanbir Singh dismissed such concerns. He said their community, including friends and neighbors back in the villages, would tend to farms while he and others carried on with the protests.

“We’ll help each other to make sure no farm goes unharvested,” Singh said.

But not all farmers are against the laws. Pawan Kumar, a fruit and vegetable grower and ardent Modi supporter, said he was ready to give them a chance.

“If they (the laws) turn out to not benefit us, then we will protest again,” he said. “We will jam roads, and make that protest even bigger. Then more common people, even workers, will join. But if they turn out to be beneficial for us, we will keep them.”

Multiple rounds of talks between the government and farmers have failed to end the stalemate. The farmers have rejected an offer from the government to put the laws on hold for 18 months, saying they want a complete repeal.

The legislation is not clear on whether the government will continue to guarantee prices for certain essential crops — a system that was introduced in the 1960s to help India shore up its food reserves and prevent shortages.

Farmers also fear that the legislation signals the government is moving away from a system in which an overwhelming majority of farmers sell only to government-sanctioned marketplaces. They worry this will leave them at the mercy of corporations that will have no legal obligation to pay them the guaranteed price anymore.

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Associated Press video journalist Rishabh R. Jain contributed to this report.

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