Hindustan Times, New Delhi

Farmers’ leaders, however, appeared steadfast in their demand for scrapping the three laws while they assured that emergency services will be allowed during the Bharat Bandh on Tuesday. (Vipin Kumar/HT Photo)



A day before their proposed Bharat Bandh against three agricultural laws, farmers’ leaders on Monday appealed for peaceful protests and asked demonstrators not to force anyone to take part in the nationwide strike, but indicated again that their campaign will continue till the central government repeals three contentious farm laws that have emerged as a rallying point for political rivals of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Agitating farmers have urged shopkeepers to join their “four-hour symbolic bandh” and shut their establishments, and said they will occupy key roads between 11am and 3pm in different parts of the country. Multiple unions, including those representing autos and taxis, traders at several mandis, transporters, and even railwaymen have said they will support the call either by stopping work during those hours or by gathering at protest sites.

As authorities across the country rushed to put in place arrangements to deal with possible law and order challenges, several political heavyweights — from West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee to Rajasthan CM Ashok Gehlot to Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal — reiterated their support for farmers, while Union minister Ravi Shankar Prasad accused the BJP’s rivals of displaying “shameful double standards” and alleged that some of them had in the past backed efforts for farm sector reforms.

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Separately, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, too, stressed the need for reforms in bringing about development while launching a Metro rail project in Agra through a video conference, a pitch that came a day ahead of the strike that is expected to stall life and impact traffic and supply of essential items in several parts of the country, including in Delhi, with tens of thousands of farmers across the country.

“Reforms are very much needed for a new order and to give new facilities. We cannot build the next century with the laws of the previous century,” Modi said, without mentioning the ongoing protests. “Some laws that used to be good in the past century have become a burden in the present century. Reforms should be a continuous process.”

Farmers’ leaders, however, appeared steadfast in their demand for scrapping the three laws while they assured that emergency services will be allowed during the Bharat Bandh on Tuesday. They also said they did not want any trouble for common people.

“The Modi government will have to accept our demands. We want nothing less than withdrawal of the new farm laws,” farmer leader Balbir Singh Rajewal said, addressing a press conference at the Singhu border connecting Delhi and Sonepat — one of the key points blocked since thousands of protesters from Punjab and Haryana reached there on November 27 as part of their protests.

Another farmers’ leader, Darshan Pal, said the bandh will be apolitical. “It will be a peaceful bandh. We are firm on not allowing any political leaders on our stage,” he added.

A large section of farmers has demanded the repeal of the three controversial laws enacted by Parliament in September, which, together, allow agribusinesses to freely trade farm produce without restrictions, permit private traders to stockpile large quantities of essential commodities for future sales and lay down new rules for contract farming. Farmers say the reforms will make them vulnerable to exploitation by big corporations, erode their bargaining power, weaken the government’s minimum support price (MSP) system, and will eventually be detrimental to the farm sector, which supports nearly half the population.

Five meetings between the government and farm leaders have remain deadlocked, with the next round of dialogue slated for Wednesday. Farmers want a legal guarantee for MSPs, which offers cultivators assured prices from the government, as well as a special session of Parliament to repeal the laws. They have even rejected four major amendments — verbally proposed by the government — to the set of farm laws.

On Monday, political rivals upped the ante against the Centre with all major parties — except Odisha’s ruling Biju Janata Dal and Andhra Pradesh’s ruling YSR Congress Party — seeking to mount pressure on the BJP over the farmers’ protests.

Also Read: Strike over new farm laws across India today

“The BJP government (at the Centre) should immediately withdraw the farm bills or step down. It should not continue to remain in power after sacrificing the rights of the farmers,” West Bengal CM and Trinamool Congress leader Banerjee said at a rally in West Midnapore district.

Rajasthan CM Gehlot said the Centre must not delay paying attention to issues of farmers’ welfare. “The NDA (National Democratic Alliance) government must shun its arrogance, insensitivity, adamant attitude and roll back the black farm laws. The Congress party stands with our farmers in ensuring the mandi system, MSP must continue & farmers & farm lands are saved from big corporate,” he said on Twitter.

The BJP hit back, stressing that parties such as the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party had once supported what are now key provisions of the new farm laws. Union minister Prasad alleged that the Opposition was conspiring to create “unrest” by misleading people over the issue, but at the same time appreciated farmers’ unions for not linking their stir with any political party.

Addressing BJP supporters at an event in Tamil Nadu, Madhya Pradesh CM Shivraj Singh Chouhan said the three farm laws were not anti-farmer. “If a farmer can sell his produce for a better price outside the market, what is the problem to anyone? What is so anti-farmer about this? If a farmer is assured of a price for his produce, if a trader buys more from a farmer without any ceiling for stocks, what is against the farmer about it?” he asked.

As the political tug of war continued, law enforcement authorities focused on putting in place arrangements to avoid trouble, as instructed by the home ministry in an advisory. The Centre also asked states and Union Territories to ensure all Covid-19 guidelines were followed by protesters.

The Delhi Police, which function under the Union home ministry, said they had taken elaborate steps and warned that strict action will be taken against those trying to disrupt movement or “forcefully” shut shops.

“Delhi Police have also issued a traffic advisory for smooth movement of vehicles and commuters. Anybody who tries to disrupt normal movement, life or forcefully closes shops will be strongly dealt with, as per the law,” Eish Singhal, Delhi Police public relations officer, said.

Also Read: One farm group in Haryana backs Centre’s new laws

Singhu and Tikri borders connecting Delhi to Haryana, and the Chilla border on the Noida Link Road were expected to remain closed on Tuesday as well in view of the protests, just like the past few days. On Monday, the Ghazipur border on NH-24 was also closed for traffic from Ghaziabad to Delhi.

Though the Confederation of All India Traders (CAIT) and All India Transporters Welfare Association (AITWA) said they will not participate in the strike, some auto and taxi unions — including those associated with app-based aggregators — and traders’ groups in Delhi announced that they will be a part of the agitation, in what could impact transport facilities and supplies of vegetables and fruits.

Adil Ahmed Khan, chairman of Delhi’s Azadpur Mandi — a wholesale market for fruits and vegetables — said several traders’ associations, including those in Ghazipur and Okhla, decided not to operate on Tuesday. However, not all traders appeared to agree with Khan.

“Traders have even put banners at all gates of Azadpur Mandi in solidarity with the one-day strike. This is a historic decision because if there are no farmers, then there will be no traders in our mandis. But there is nothing to panic. Delhi will not face any crisis due to the shortage of supplies,” said Khan.

The All India Motor Transport Congress (AIMTC), which is the apex body of transporters representing about 9.5 million truckers, said it will suspend operations across the country.