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New Delhi: Hundreds of thousands of farmers from Punjab and Haryana have stationed themselves at Delhi’s doorstep leading to an unprecedented standoff between the centre and farmer unions. In the past few years, farmer protests in Delhi were largely a day or a two-day event packed with speeches demanding loan waivers and remunerative prices. This time round, it is markedly different.

Farmers from Punjab and Haryana are well prepared for a long haul after occupying highways leading to the national capital. There is a palpable sense of calm yet gritty resolve. They have arrived. But they are in no hurry to return. At the Singhu border farmers have literally set up a giant village stretching for over twenty kilometres on the national highway and turned tractor trolleys into mini caravans.

The roof of the trolleys are covered in bright sheets of plastic— to ward of the biting cold-- and hay and mattresses are stacked on top of each other to make sprawling beds. Farmers have built a home away from home. And the turbaned farmers smilingly invite every visitor with hot tea—and keep pestering to share a meal. Langars (community kitchen) are on round-the-clock with young volunteers serving food. In small groups some can be seen chopping vegetables or clearing trash, as clothes flutter on makeshift clotheslines.

With a similar congregation at the Tikri border and more tractors joining every passing day, farmer leaders claim the numbers have swelled past the historic boat club rally organised by the legendary farmer leader Mahendra Singh Tikait in 1988.

The bone of contention is a new law which allow traders and corporations to purchase directly from farmers, outside regulated markets, and without paying any taxes or fees. Farmers fear the new regime will weaken government purchase of rice and wheat at assured prices, disproportionately hurting growers from Punjab and Haryana, the erstwhile green revolution states, which not only took India out of its post-independence ship-to-mouth existence (dependence on foreign food aid) but in the process also prospered from assured government purchase of food grains.

“We want the government to take back this kala kanoon (black laws) and bring another law which will guarantee MSP (minimum support price) for all crops," said 72-year-old Kulwant Singh who reached the border last Friday from Ambala district of Haryana. “Without MSP we will become like the Bihar farmer who come every year to plant paddy on our fields. If they had the benefit of MSP they would not have turned into daily wage earners."

“Look at our langar, we can feed this entire city. And we don’t want 2000 doles (direct cash assistance under PM-Kisan scheme). Before coming to Delhi, I purchased a garland and told my family: if I return home victorious put it on me, if I return dead place it on my shroud," Singh said.

35-year-old Khuswant Singh from Khanna in Punjab was busy volunteering at the langar when I requested him for a brief chat. “Take these laws to Uttar Pradesh and Bihar where farmers do not get the benefit of MSP," he said politely.

There is a sense of anguish and betrayal among many. The government is forcing private markets on us but look at what happened to education and health (services) which are beyond our reach, said an angry Amrik Singh from Jalandhar in Punjab. “It’s like I have a cold but the government is running behind me with an ice-cream. We never wanted these laws but the government is saying we don’t understand what is good for us."

The resolve in these voices is evident. To stay put, to battle it out, doesn’t matter how long it takes. The home ministry urged protestors to vacate the highways and move to a designated ground in Burari in Delhi’s fringes, as a precondition for talks. But farmer organisations have refused to move and said the spot is an ‘open jail.’ Since October, central ministers have met farmer unions from Punjab twice but talks were inconclusive. Another meeting is scheduled on 3 December, but given the strong stand taken by both parties the stalemate is likely to continue.

What explains this impasse? The government enforced the new laws amid the Covid19 pandemic, first as emergency ordinances in June followed by their passage in the Parliament in September, without consulting the primary stakeholder, the farmer. In the process, it ignored the deep-rooted fear that market reforms will turn the Punjab and Haryana zamindar (landlord) into a marginal kisan. After a month-long protest and railway blockade within Punjab yielded no results, farmers started preparations to reach Delhi. Surpassing numerous barricades and filling up trenches dug by the government by bare hands seems to have strengthened their resolve.

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