Indian protests against agriculture reforms attract new supporters

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New Delhi

Thousands of farmers in the politically important Indian state of Uttar Pradesh on Friday rallied in opposition to new agricultural laws. This signals growing support for a months-long campaign to have the reforms scrapped.

Angry at what they see as legislation that benefits private buyers at the expense of growers, tens of thousands of farmers have been camped on the outskirts of the capital, New Delhi, for more than two months, calling for the withdrawal of laws introduced in September.

Much of the initial support for the protests has come from rice and wheat growers from northern India, particularly opposition-ruled Punjab state.

But in a sign of a growing challenge to the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, thousands of farmers rallied on Friday in Uttar Pradesh state to show their support for the protests.

“Everybody here is going to join the movement,” said Jitendra Singh, 55, a sugarcane farmer at the rally in Bhainswal village. Hundreds of police, many armed and wearing riot gear, stood by but there was no trouble.

Uttar Pradesh is India’s largest state and a critical battleground state in elections. While Modi’s party commands a comfortable majority in parliament, the support for the protests from Uttar Pradesh’s politically influential sugarcane farmers will be a worry.

The farmers say the laws mean the end of long-standing support prices for their crops and will leave them vulnerable to the whims of big buyers. They are demanding that the laws be annulled.

India’s agriculture minister defended new agriculture reform laws in parliament on Friday, dampening hopes of a quick settlement with tens of thousands of farmers who have been demanding their repeal by blocking three highways connecting the capital to northern India for over two months.

Singh said the laws will lead to more private investment in agriculture and raise earnings by setting up warehouses where farmers can store crops and sell them when prices are favourable.

On Saturday, farmers plan to blockade highways across the country for three hours to draw attention to their cause. They say they will not stop their protests until the laws are repealed.

Opposition leaders, including Anand Sharma of the Congress party and Satish Mishra of the Bahujan Samaj Party, accused the government of violating the human rights of farmers by disconnecting electricity and water supplies at protest sites and cutting internet access.— Agencies