The last time Indian farmers marched on New Delhi, they forced Prime Minister Narendra Modi into a rare policy climbdown. So earlier this month Juzhar Singh climbed on his tractor to join thousands of fellow farmers streaming south towards the capital to try to do it again.

But while in 2020 and 2021 farmers from northern India’s agricultural belt were able to camp out in New Delhi for nearly a year, this time they have been stopped at a state border more than 200km away by barricades and police armed with smoke bombs and drones dropping tear gas.

Now Singh, 60, who trekked south from near Amritsar in India’s northern Punjab state, is stuck on the highway in a cart decorated with a sign declaring: “We are farmers, not terrorists.”

The tough government measures come ahead of a general election expected to be held in April and May, in which Modi’s Bharatiya Janata party is the strong favourite to win re-election for a third five-year term.

But the resurgence of India’s farmer protests has highlighted the Modi government’s failure to rationalise an agriculture sector that employs nearly half the population in a country where more than 800mn people rely on free, government-supplied food grains.

Juzhar Singh, in a blue tracksuit, with fellow farmers
Juzhar Singh, centre left, is one of thousands of farmers challenging the BJP government’s agricultural policies © John Reed/FT

The farmers’ demands, including for higher government-backed prices for their crops and debt forgiveness, have once again thrust their complaints back to the centre of national debate.

After the last Dilli Chalo, or “Let’s Go to Delhi”, protest, Modi in November 2021 scrapped three laws that would have transformed farming, including by allowing private corporations to enter the market. It was a highly unusual policy retreat for a politically dominant leader.

Thousands of Punjabi farmers, mostly older men, are now camped out in the villages of Shambhu and Khanauri on the border between Punjab and Haryana states, sleeping in their carts and using hay bales as seats. 

The farmers were blocked by cement barriers and metal spikes planted on the road, while drones dropped tear gas and police fired smoke bombs and pellets, according to more than a dozen participants in the protest. They said some farmers suffered eye injuries or skin wounds. One farmer died during a clash with police at the border last week. 

“We have been treated like people from an alien country,” said Manjeet Singh Ghumana, national president of the Bharatiya Khet Mazdoor Union, one of the farmers’ groups leading the protests. “It is our fundamental right to agitate for our demands, and we are being browbeaten, not being allowed to reach Delhi.” 

Map of India and Punjab state

In a sign of the political sensitivity, journalists and activists covering or involved in the farmers’ march have complained of social media censorship. Elon Musk’s platform X said last week that the Indian government had ordered it to take down posts and block users.

The farmers say the government must raise its “minimum support prices” for commodities such as rice and wheat and extend it to more crops.

“Elections are around the corner, and if all these people go and sit around Delhi, the national capital, the government has to do something to resolve this,” said RS Khatra, a farmer and retired Indian army officer who supports the protest. “By stopping them here, the government can breathe easy.”

The government did not respond to a request for comment, but has held four rounds of talks with the farmers and reportedly offered them some concessions on minimum prices.

The Indian march comes alongside an international wave of protests by farmers, who have in blocked roads in Germany, spilled imported Ukrainian grain in Poland and scrapped with police in France and Belgium.

This week Indian protesters set alight effigies meant to represent the World Trade Organization, which farmers blame for the government’s reluctance to give them greater price support. 

“Farmers are in an agitation mood in Paris, Germany, Spain, other places — similarly in India,” said Sawinder Singh Chautala, a senior member of Kisan Mazdoor Sangharsh Committee, another farmers’ union. “They have been allowed to go to their capitals, but in India they are not being allowed to reach Delhi on the behest of the corporates.” 

Sympathy for Punjabi farmers is limited in other parts of India because their relatively big farms make them on average more prosperous than those farther south. They are also seen by other Indians as having cornered most of the benefits of minimum support prices because of the government’s large-scale buying of wheat and rice, the state’s two biggest cash crops.

Agronomists in the 1960s and 1970s chose Punjab as a laboratory for the “Green Revolution” of improved seeds and better farming that transformed India into one of the world’s largest food producers.  

Punjab and Haryana remain two of India’s most productive farming states, but overfarming of thirsty crops such as rice and wheat has depleted water and soil, and farmers say they want minimum prices to be extended to a wider range of foodstuffs to help them diversify to more sustainable crops.

They also say the prices do not take into account the rising cost of fuel, fertiliser and other inputs, and they are barred from exporting staples including wheat and rice by a government keen to keep inflation under control.

Analysts say demands for across-the-board price support are unrealistic, but the government could ease farmers’ plight by easing export bans.

“The government need to clean up the mess in the market so the farmers can get a fair price in the market,” said Ashok Gulati, an agricultural economist. “They could also announce investment support or income support, which does not distort the markets.” 

Juzhar Singh, the farmer from near Amritsar, said he was prepared to camp on the highway for as long as it took to force a government rethink. “Until our demands are met, we are sitting,” he said.

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