New Delhi: “If just a small march is this big, what will happen on the actual day of protest,” wondered two men standing near an exit gate at the Eastern Peripheral Expressway while clicking pictures of the farmers’ tractor march on Thursday as it made its way from Ghazipur to Palwal.
As the protest by the farmers camping at Delhi’s borders entered its 43rd day on Thursday, the agitating peasants — who are demanding a repeal of the three new Farm Laws enacted by the Centre in September last year and a legal guarantee of the minimum support price (MSP) — stormed the expressway from four different points (Singhu to Tikri border, Tikri to Kundli, Ghazipur to Palwal and Rewasan to Palwal).
Over 1,000 tractors were on the expressway at one point, making their way to Palwal. The rally came a day before the ninth round of talks between farmer representatives and the government on Friday.
“We have participated in this rally with 200 tractors and essential items worth over Rs one lakh. It’s just a trailer; wait for the film. We will storm Delhi with thousands of tractors to take part in the farmers’ parade on Republic Day,” Vishal Choudhary from Jalalabad village in Uttar Pradesh’s Ghaziabad told NewsClick.
The 29-year-old said that even if the government does not accept the peasants’ demands on Friday, they will force its hand sooner or later. “We will make the government accept our legitimate demands by hook or by crook. Yes, it will take time; we are ready for a long haul,” he said.
On January 2, farmer unions had announced that thousands of protesters would march into Delhi on Republic Day and conduct their own parallel tractor parade if their demands are not met.
Thirty-one-year-old Aditya Choudhary, also from Jalalabad, warned the government that the peaceful protest could take a violent turn any day if the government attempted to test the farmers’ patience any longer.
“So far we have been holding a peaceful protest, but we warn the government not to take our patience for granted. If the situation worsens tomorrow its responsibility is on the government,” he said.
Krishanpal Rathi from Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh said that instead of doubling farmers’ income, as claimed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the government had halved it over the past seven years.
“There has been no growth in sugarcane prices for the past four years despite repeated hikes in input costs. When farmers demanded that the dues from their sugarcane produce be cleared by the mills, the government announced a financial assistance of Rs 3,500 crore (announced on December 16, 2020) for mill owners so that they can pay off their outstanding dues. What did we get from the financial package? The sugar mills will pay the amount they owe to us. It is an outstanding debt, not charity. In fact, the mill owners benefited in our name,” he said.
In a written reply to a question in Parliament on September 15, 2020, Union Minister of State for Consumer Affairs, Food, and Public Distribution Danve Raosaheb Dadarao said that the outstanding dues to sugarcane farmers across the country stood at Rs 15,683 crore on September 11.
With the highest share in unpaid dues estimated at Rs 10,174 crore, farmers from Uttar Pradesh have been the worst-affected. Of the amount, about Rs 10,000 crore was from the 2019-20 season which began in October 2019.Unpaid dues amounted to Rs 39 crore during 2017-18 and arrears for 2016-17 and previous years stood at Rs 135 crore respectively.
After Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and Tamil Nadu had unpaid dues of Rs 924 crore and Rs 1,834 crore respectively for the last three years. Of the total cane dues of Rs 15,683 crore, Rs 1,899 crore was for 2016-17 and previous years; Rs 242 crore pertained to 2017-18 and Rs 548 crore was for 2018-19, the reply said.
This was on account of sugar prices remaining depressed, which affected the liquidity of sugar mills, the government said.
“As per the decision taken by farmer unions, we will march towards Delhi on January 23 to take part in Republic Day celebrations. We have conducted huge mobilisation drives in villages and farmers are eagerly waiting with their tractors and trolleys to become part of a historic moment. The world will witness the power of common people that day,” Rathi said.
He added no force could stop them from entering the national capital. “How can the government stop us from reaching Delhi to take part in a national festival. The city belongs to everyone; therefore, we will go there and mark Republic Day. We are not disrupting the law and order situation there,” he concluded.
Rampal Singh, a resident of Amroha in western Uttar Pradesh, said: “This is a rehearsal for our scheduled parade in the national capital on January 26. It is a warning to the government to accept our demands or be ready for a day it would not have imagined of. Our demand is very simple: withdraw the three laws which are unacceptable to us without playing tricks and ifs and buts. We have already made it clear that no one will return home until the laws are rolled back completely.”
He said that the rally was also a show of strength to send out the message that farmers in the country were not as “weak” as the thinks they are.
“Farmers from remote corners of the country have begun joining the agitation. So far they were busy sowing wheat. The sowing season for sugarcane is also about to be over. Therefore, its better that the government does not take us lightly,” he said, adding that “even if the government does not agree to our demands despite the parade, we will further intensify the protest by taking it to villages and districts. We will not let the government do whatever it wants. It’s a democracy, not an autocracy”.
“The government argues that the laws are in the interest of farmers, but how? If it is really so, convince us with facts, not propaganda. The government says that farmers will continue to sell their agricultural produce at MSP, but what is its benefit if there is minimal procurement which stands at just four percent. Therefore, we want a legal guarantee for an MSP. We are not asking the government to procure our crops but ensure whosoever is doing so does it at MSP. If the government really wants to stop the exploitation of farmers, regulating the MSP is the only way out,” he added.
Satyadev Singh, 76, invoked Mahendra Singh Tikait’s Boat Club protest of 1988. “Such a huge protest of farmers is taking place 32 years after the Boat Club stir. Back then, political leaders and prime ministers, no matter how influential and popular they were, came to talk to the farmers because we are a democracy and this country runs on dialogue. What is stopping Modi from reaching out to us and accepting our demands?” he asked.
He said farmers are willing to forgo the “benefits” the Centre talks about. He added that they will fight till the end for their survival.
“The three laws will hurt farmers severely in the long run. We have already conveyed our demands to the government and it is now time for them to decide. We came here for a solution and we will stay here till we get it. If not, we are the sons of the same warrior-farmers who brought Delhi to a standstill once before. This is the Boat Club rally of our generation,” he said.
Farmers are demanding the repeal of The Farmers' (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020, Farmers' Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020 and The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act 2020.