Irfan Jafri is itching to get back to Delhi.

On November 26, when hundreds of farmers marched towards national capital in protest against three new agriculture laws, 50-year-old Jafri was among them. When the Delhi police shut down the city’s borders, he spent 17 days camping at the Singhu border between Haryana and Delhi with 200 other farmers from his village in Madhya Pradesh’s Raisen district.

“During that time, locals opened up their homes to us, Sikh groups gave us free langar food, and we had a chance to meet farmers from all over India,” said Jafri, a wheat, rice and soyabean farmer who heads a local agricultural organisation – Kisan Jagruti Sangathan – in his district.

Farmers from Punjab and Haryana have been on the frontlines of this unprecedented uprising. The media attention they have received has created a misleading impression that the opposition to the laws is restricted mainly to those two states.

But protests by farmers from a range of other states – Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand and others – have intensified in the past few weeks. While some like Jafri have joined or attempted to join the protesters at the borders of Delhi, others – like farmers in Bihar or Kerala – have staged rallies in their own states. On January 11, more than 500 farmers from districts across Kerala will begin a three-day journey by road to reach Delhi, to be followed by another 500 people on January 21.

The Central government maintains that the three laws, passed by Parliament in September, will overhaul outdated procurement procedures for farm produce, give farmers more options for selling their harvest and improve pricing. Farmers, however, claim that the laws will in fact weaken the minimum support price system, lead to a deregulation of crop pricing and leave them at the mercy of corporations.

Eight rounds of talks between the Centre and farmers’ unions have now ended in stalemates, with farmers demanding a complete repeal of the laws and the government refusing to entertain that possibility. spoke to several farmers from different states across India, to ask them why they had joined the protests and what they expect from the resistance.

‘Ready for a long fight’

Irfan Jafri, Madhya Pradesh

For Jafri, who has organised several district-level protests in Raisen since his return from Singhu border last month, the main problem with the new farm laws is the lack of regulation of traders.

The state of Madhya Pradesh, he said, had witnessed a recent example that has frightened farmers: In December 2020, two brothers called the Khoja Traders duped at least 22 farmers in four of the state’s districts of produce worth Rs 22 crore. When cheques issued to the farmers bounced, they discovered that the Khoja Traders had cancelled their registration with the government-run agricultural produce market, and were not registered in the private markets.

“The traders could do this because under the new law [The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act], traders don’t need to be licensed – they can just show their PAN cards to buy produce,” said Jafri. The law also does not allow criminal complaints to be filed against traders – all cases of dispute have to be settled by the sub-divisional magistrate. “How are farmers going to get justice now?”

Jafri and other farmers from the Kisan Jagruti Sangathan have spent the past month travelling from village to village in Raisen and other districts, educating farmers about such implications of the new laws. “It has taken time, but farmers have now understood the risks and are ready for a long fight,” he said. Jafri plans to travel towards Delhi on January 15, and is enlisting a contingent of farmers to join him. “We are in a democracy. If the people don’t want a law, how long can the government impose it on us? I believe farmers will win.”

‘Government will have to bow down’

Baidyanath Yadav, Bihar

Baidyanath Yadav from Darbhanga, Bihar. Photo courtesy: Baidyanath Yadav

In Bihar, Baidyanath Yadav’s biggest fear is the “invasion” of large private traders buying up most agricultural produce at prices that would disadvantage both farmers and ordinary consumers.

“Here in Darbhanga there are some rich players with large warehouses who are capable of buying the whole district’s supply of food grains,” said Yadav, 44, who grows wheat, rice and pulses on 40 acres of his land. “These rich traders have tried to hoard dals and oil before, but have been raided. Now, they will be able to hoard under the law itself, and they will drive up prices for consumers.”

The government-run agricultural produce markets had already been weakened by Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s government since 2006, Yadav said. “Over the years, farmers in Bihar have simply accepted this situation, but now we are waking up again,” he said.

At a protest in Darbhanga on January 7, Yadav and other farmers burnt effigies of Prime Minister Narendra Modi as well as businessmen Mukesh Ambani and Gautam Adani – symbols of large corporations that farmers fear will take over agricultural markets. “We have held relay protests for the past week, with 100 to 150 different farmers protesting every day,” said Yadav.

On December 29, 2020, dozens of protesters were injured in police lathi charge as over 10,000 farmers from across Bihar assembled for a protest in Patna.

“Yes, farmers from my state have been slower to respond compared to people in Punjab or Haryana, but even if 30 per cent of India’s farmers join us now, the government will have to bow down,” said Yadav.

Protesters burning an effigy in Darbhanga, Bihar. Photo: Baidyanath Yadav

‘A historic andolan’

Harphool Singh, Rajasthan

On December 12, Harphool Singh travelled from his home in Rajasthan’s Sikar district towards Delhi, prepared for a long stay outside the capital’s border. On December 13, he was blocked by the Haryana police itself, and has been camping at the Shahjahanpur border between Rajasthan and Haryana since then.

“Initially we were 700 farmers there, but now several thousand – we have lost count,” said Singh, 50, a farmer growing wheat, bajra, gram and mustard on his rain-dependent farms in Sikar.

As a member of the All India Kisan Sabha, Singh has often protested against the Rajasthan state government for failing to procure grains from farmers at minimum support prices – a problem that intensified after the Covid-19 lockdown. “But instead of strictly enforcing MSP everywhere, the new laws will essentially kill the MSP system, and kill the mandis [government markets],” said Singh. “The MSP for bajra used to be Rs 2,150 per quintal, while the open market rates are barely Rs 1,200 per quintal. It is obvious how farmers will be affected.”

At the Shahjahanpur border, Singh and other farmers have settled into a routine of cooking, cleaning, assembling for protests and resting. “We take turns watching out for anti-social elements because we want a peaceful protest, and the locals here in Alwar district have helped to look after all our needs,” said Singh. “We know Modi will not agree to our demands easily, but this is a historic andolan [movement], and sooner or later the government will give in.”

‘We are known as a country of farmers’

Raju Desale, Maharashtra

Raju Desale at a protest against the new farm laws. Photo: Facebook/Raju Desale

At the same Shahjahanpur border, Raju Desale and nearly 350 other farmers from Maharashtra were given a warm welcome on January 6. “We had travelled for three days from Nagpur via Madhya Pradesh, and it rained the night we reached the Haryana border, but the locals here have helped us find places to stay,” said Desale, a wheat, bajra and grape farmer from Nashik district. “After we arrived, the unions here honoured the 23 farmer widows in our group, whose husbands had killed themselves in Aurangabad and Parbhani districts.”

Even though Maharashtra farmers have not protested in very large numbers, Desale believes more and more of them are now beginning to see the problems posed by the new laws. “Every year, farmers in Nashik register at least 100 cases with the police against grape traders who cheat farmers by disappearing with produce without paying,” said Desale. “We have been saying for years that all traders need to be properly registered, but now the law actually allows them to trade without registration.”

Like other protesters, Desale is increasingly anxious about the erosion of minimum support prices and large private companies getting opportunities to hoard food grain under the new laws. “We are known as a country of farmers, so it is sad that we are being treated in this way today,” he said.

‘Contracts work for big landlords, not us’

Samy Natarajan, Tamil Nadu

When Samy Natarajan travelled to Delhi on December 19, the cold was unbearable. In his village, the temperature hardly ever drops below 20 degree celsius. In the national capital, it was below 10 degrees.

The 50-year old farmer from Thennamanadu village in Thanjavur district is a member of the Tamil Nadu Farmers’ Union. He said he spent his own money to travel to Delhi as the union could not afford the expense.

Natarajan holds 4.5 acres of land and cultivates paddy in the winter months, when Tamil Nadu receives rain from the North-East monsoon. In the summer, he grows crops like sesame. As a small farmer, he said his biggest worry about the farm laws was the clauses that allows for corporate houses to get into contracts directly with the farmers.

“We have first-hand experience of this contract system,” Natarajan said. Fifteen years ago, a soya mill had signed contracts with the farmers in his village. While the price was determined before they sowed the crops, the company failed to give them the agreed price. “They made many excuses like the quality was not as agreed to, the beans were not of same size and such things,” he said. But the farmers had to sell the produce to whatever price they could get as finding a new buyer would have been difficult.

At the Delhi border, Natarajan said most of those protesting were small and tenant farmers. “These contract systems may work for big landlords but not for us,” he added.

For Natarajan, participating in the protests in Delhi was an experience of a lifetime. He does not know a word of Hindi, but one member in his group knew the language. Everyone spoke to protesting farmers from North India through him.

B Thulasi Natarajan, his companion on the trip, a secretary of the Tamil Nadu Farmers’ Union, recalled how trucks carrying firewood would arrive at the protest site every evening. Bonfires would be lit every 100 metres and the farmers would gather around them as the temperatures dropped. “It was so efficient,” he said.

Natarajan said it was not only the three farm laws that has caused the churn among farmers but consistent policies against their interests. “Take the electricity amendment bill. How can the Centre deny free power to us when it is the state that gives us this subsidy?”

Natarajan said while they may not have the means to go to Delhi again, they will protest in Tamil Nadu till the laws are withdrawn.

Sruthisagar Yamunan contributed reporting from Tamil Nadu.