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Farmers In India Are Trying To Revive Their Protests Against Agriculture Deregulation

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Now to India, where farmers earlier this year staged some of the biggest protests in that country's history. A huge COVID wave forced many of them off the streets this spring, but now Indian farmers are heading back out to revive their movement. NPR's Lauren Frayer went to meet them at a protest camp north of New Delhi.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Chanting in non-English language).

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in non-English language).

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Farmers in colorful turbans chant a blessing before they sit down to eat on carpets laid over asphalt, smack in the middle of what used to be a highway. They've built a huge tent city here with an outdoor kitchen.

(SOUNDBITE OF COOKWARE CLINKING)

FRAYER: Where women stir giant vats of lentils bubbling over wood fires. Among them is Balwinder Kaur, who's been camping here on and off with her children for almost 10 months.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in non-English language).

BALWINDER KAUR: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: Since just after India's Parliament passed three farm laws that changed the way agriculture works here. The government used to be the middleman between farmers and wholesalers. Now it wants to step back and encourage farmers to sell directly, but many of them don't want to. For them, the laws mean a loss of security, a threat of being undercut by big business.

KAUR: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: This is about our livelihoods and our ability to provide for our children, Balwinder says. These arguments have been aired in the streets of India for many months. The Supreme Court has suspended the farm laws, but farm unions want them repealed altogether. The turning point was January 26, the Republic Day, a big national holiday, when what had been peaceful protests suddenly erupted into clashes with police.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Yelling in non-English language).

FRAYER: Some farmers hoisted separatist flags over the historic Red Fort in the capital. Protest leader VM Singh says he was dismayed by that violence, which he says hurt his cause. Before Republic Day, he says...

VM SINGH: People across the board supported the protests, but Indians are patriotic to the core. When there was a little chaos, then the public opinion changed to a great extent, and that is where the government took full advantage and stopped the talks.

FRAYER: Members of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's ruling party have since called these farmers anti-national, unpatriotic, and they point out that the protests have been dominated by Punjabis, rather than a more diverse group of farmers from all Indian states. Seema Bathla is an agricultural economist who recently surveyed thousands of farmers outside Punjab. She found only about 50% of them had even heard of the farm laws and protests.

SEEMA BATHLA: We asked them about problems in how they sell their produce, and only medium-sized farmer and large farmers were aware about the new farm laws. But the small farmers, they didn't have any idea.

FRAYER: The protest leader, Singh, is trying to remedy that. He's spent the past several months trying to drum up support in 20 different Indian states. And earlier this month...

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Chanting in non-English language).

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in non-English language).

FRAYER: Half a million people turned out for a farmer protest in India's most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, which is ruled by Modi's party and happens to be holding elections in a few months. Everyone agrees that this has morphed from a debate over agriculture policy to a debate over politics.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Down. Down. Modi, down.

FRAYER: Protesters chanted slogans against Modi at the encampment I visited north of New Delhi, where temporary tents are looking more permanent these days. Balwinder, the mother of two, says...

KAUR: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: We won't move until these laws are repealed. We will stand strong, she says.

KAUR: (Chanting in non-English language).

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in non-English language).

FRAYER: Lauren Frayer, NPR News, at the Singhu border north of New Delhi.

(SOUNDBITE OF J.T.BEY SONG, "THOUGHTS OF UNSUCCESSFUL ROMANCE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.