Farmers’ march sparks clashes on Delhi-UP border, dozens injured
Police on Tuesday fired water cannons and lobbed tear gas shells to halt a march by tens of thousands of farmers attempting to enter the national capital from Uttar Pradesh to seek better prices and concessions, the latest outpouring of agrarian anger that threatened to snowball following the day’s clashes.
At least a dozen farmers and eight policemen were hurt in the melee that took place shortly after 1am at the Delhi-Uttar Pradesh border, where officials put up layers of metal and concrete barriers — snapping the main road link to two of Delhi’s key satellite towns of Indirapuram and Ghaziabad.
Within hours, the Union government offered to work on some of those demands, but the assurances were rejected. “We are not satisfied with the government’s assurances… The government disrupted our protest at Kisan Ghat. We will continue agitation at UP Gate if our demands are not met,” said Naresh Tikait, chief of Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU).
A second BKU member, spokesperson Rakesh Tikait, suggested the protesters will make another attempt at entering Delhi on Wednesday. “After we met ministers in Delhi, the Centre gave us assurance only on four-five of our demands. This is not acceptable and we have decided to continue our protest. Tomorrow we will move to Kisan Ghat and Raj Ghat,” he said.
BKU is leading the protest that began from Haridwar a week ago, and its leaders met junior agriculture minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat. Estimates put the number of attendees at 30,000. Their demands include waiver of loans, cut in fuel prices, and higher minimum support prices for their produce.
The march forced a near-complete blockade of the Delhi-Meerut expressway since late Monday, triggering mile-long jams. With offices set to reopen on Wednesday after a public holiday, the traffic detours due to the blockade is likely to severely hit large parts of East Delhi and Noida. The rush is also likely to spill over to the Metro, which is now the main link between Delhi and localities on the other side of the Uttar Pradesh border.
Prior to the meeting with BKU, Union home minister Rajnath Singh met Union agriculture minister Radha Mohan Singh to discuss the farmers’ issues.
According to an official aware of the developments, home minister Singh led the parleys. “The farmers are from Uttar Pradesh, and Singh knows them well. He has handled similar crises in the past and government leaders wanted him to deal with the current situation,” said this official, asking not to be named.
The government eventually offered to work on seven out of 15 demands, but ruled out a farm loan waiver at this point since that could only be dealt by the state. Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath defended his government’s initiatives for farmers and suggested that the protests were motivated.
“The state government has initiated a number of steps to help farmers, including a clutch of measures to expedite cane payments to growers,” Adityanath said.
The Opposition, however, accused the government of carrying out a “brutal attack” and said that it was ironical that it took place on the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. “On International Day of Non-Violence, the BJP’s two-year Gandhi Jayanti celebrations began with the brutal beating of farmers peacefully coming to Delhi. Now, farmers cannot even air grievances coming to the capital!” Congress president Rahul Gandhi tweeted in Hindi.
Later, the Congress Working Committee – the party’s top decision-making body – released a statement condemning the police action. “We condemn the autocratic BJP government and Prime Minister Narendra Modi who is inebriated with power,” it said. The head of the Congress party’s Kisan Khet Mazdoor (farmers-farm labourers) department, Nana Patole, said he will join the agitating farmers at Delhi border on Wednesday, and former Haryana chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda too met protesters.
The Samajwadi Party, the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) also criticised Tuesday’s crackdown. Delhi’s chief minister Arvind Kejriwal said the national capital “belongs to everyone” and that “farmers shouldn’t have been stopped… their demands are justified”.
The past year has seen several big protests held by farmer organisations, including in Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh – two of which will hold elections this year. The anger coincides with opinion polls that suggest the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government has been slowly losing support among framers.
According to the Mood of the Nation (MOTN) surveys conducted by Delhi-based Centre for Study of Developing Societies-Lokniti, 42% of farmers had a positive assessment of the NDA government on the its ability to address farmers’ woes in May 2017, immediately after the BJP’s victory in the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections. This went down by one percentage point in January 2018, and then fell to 30% by May 2018.
Junior agriculture minister Shekhawat said the government will move court against the ban on diesel vehicles older than 10 years – this was among the farmers’ demands who said the ban makes their tractors illegal – and that a committee of chief ministers will look into demand to link MGNREGA with agriculture. Another demand for 5% goods and services tax (GST) on farm equipments will be placed before the GST Council, and imports will be restricted for articles that are abundantly produced in India, the minister said.
“The government has formed a committee of six chief ministers to look into this issue of labour for farm. The committee is in talks to connect MGNREGA with agriculture,” said Shekhawat.
BKU chief Tikait said that those measures were not enough. “The Centre is not ready to reduce the power tariff for farmers and increase sugarcane price. Therefore, our agitation will continue,” he said.
An expert said the anger is a consequence of the government’s policies. “The farm and rural sectors are being largely ignored; there is no serious engagement with people. Agriculture is just one set of issues related to the rural sector, which needs to be taken seriously,” said Prof SS Jodhka, who teaches sociology at the Jawaharlal Nehru University.
The protest and the blockade has snapped the main link to Ghaziabad and Indirapuram, from where commuters are now only able to take the Metro, other than long detours via Noida and Kashmere Gate.
Officials of the Ghaziabad district administration said the protesters were still at the Vaishali underpass. Both the Uttar Pradesh police and the Delhi police have deployed thousands of reinforcements in the area. “The deployment will remain till the time farmers are at the site. The diversions will remain till the underpass gets cleared. The prohibitory orders are already in place but they farmers had already intimated us about the march,” said Ghaziabad district magistrate Ritu Maheshwari.
She later announced that all schools and colleges will be closed in Ghaziabad on Wednesday.
Officials of the Delhi Traffic Police warned of problems on Wednesday when offices reopen after a public holiday.
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