New Delhi: Tens of thousands of Indian farmers are marching toward the capital to demand guaranteed crop prices, renewing a movement from two years ago that succeeded in getting the government to repeal contentious new agricultural laws.
On Tuesday, police used tear gas , detained a number of farmers and heavily barricaded border points to block the protesters from entering New Delhi.
Authorities are determined to control the new demonstrations to avoid a repeat of the 2021 protests, in which tens of thousands of farmers camped outside the capital for over a year, enduring a harsh winter and a devastating COVID-19 surge.
Why are farmers protesting again?
The farmers, who rode on tractors and trucks from neighboring Haryana and Punjab states, say the government has failed to meet some of their key demands from the previous protests.
In 2021, Prime Minister Narendra Modi repealed a set of agricultural laws that had triggered the first round of protests from farmers, who said the legislation would hurt their incomes.
But farmer groups that are leading the current march say that since then, the government hasn’t made progress on other important demands such as guaranteed crop prices, a doubling of farmers' income and loan waivers.
The demand for guaranteed minimum support prices is at the heart of their protests.
Currently, the government protects agricultural producers against any sharp fall in farm prices by setting a minimum purchase price for certain essential crops, a system that was introduced in the 1960s to help shore up food reserves and prevent shortages. But the farmers are demanding that this be extended to all farm produce, and not just essential crops.
What happened last time?
In November 2021, Modi’s announcement that his government would quash the controversial laws was widely seen as a win for the farmers and a rare retreat by the populist leader.
The government had defended the laws as necessary reforms to modernize Indian farming, but farmers feared the government’s move to introduce market reforms in agriculture would leave them poorer.
The protests, which began in northern India, triggered nationwide demonstrations and drew international support.
Political commentators said the protest movement was the biggest challenge until that time for the Modi government, which then tried to paint the move as a decision that prioritized farmers.
What does this mean for Modi's government?
The protests come at a crucial time for the governing party and Modi, who is widely expected to sweep upcoming national polls and secure a third successive term.
In 2021, Modi’s decision to do away with the laws was seen as a move to appease farmers ahead of crucial state polls.
Farmers form the most influential voting bloc in India and are often romanticised as the heart and soul of the nation.
Politicians have long considered it unwise to alienate them, and farmers are also particularly important to Modi’s base. Northern Haryana and a few other states with substantial farmer populations are ruled by his party.
If the protests were to gain the same kind of momentum as last time, it could pose a real test for Modi and his government just a few months before the general election.