“Is this the kind of place to pass through at night time?” asked Anita Singh, a middle-aged woman who was trying to make her way through a bushy dirt path on Thursday to reach the spot where farmers have been protesting in Ghazipur for 78 days.
Ghazipur in Uttar Pradesh lies on Delhi’s southeast border.
Singh, a social worker, had travelled 20 km from Dwarka in southwest Delhi to express her support for the protesting farmers, who have occupied a stretch of flyover on the Delhi-Meerut Expressway.
On January 26, when farmer-unions had organised a tractor parade, some protestors from the site had smashed through barricades placed by Delhi Police to reach the Red Fort, where they violently clashed with the police and unfurled Sikh flags.
Since then, the Delhi police have built formidable fortifications on the highway: at least three layers of iron and concrete boulders alternating with concertina wires.
This has made it impossible to access the protest site from the regular highway. On Thursday, a group of parliamentarians were unable to crossover to the other side.
“No electricity, no water, god forbid if there is a fire inside or if someone has a heart attack then no ambulance, no fire brigade,” said Shiromani Akali Dal MP Harsimrat Kaur Badal. “These [farmers] are Indians, even the Pakistan border does not have this kind of fortification.”
Singh, the social worker who took a long detour to reach the site, however, voiced another concern: “They [police] have put barricades so people get irritated” at the farmers.
Local residents who travel between Delhi and Ghazipur are facing difficulties with their daily commute. Adding to their troubles were the internet shutdowns imposed in the area for three days.
A similar situation prevails near the protest sites on Delhi’s border with Haryana – at Singhu in the north, and Tikri in the west.
Protesting farmers have expressed fears that the blockades could turn public opinion against them. About a year ago, additional road blockades created by the police in the Shaheen Bagh area had sparked hostility towards a Muslim women-led protest against the Citizenship law.
But Scroll.in found the situation is more mixed near the farmers’ protest sites – local residents are angry about the inconvenience they are facing but opinion is divided over who is responsible for it. Some residents accuse the farmers of being violent and intransigent, while others are sympathetic to them and blame the police and the government for the impasse.
In Ghazipur, working-class residents said their daily earnings were impacted by the blockade, while shop owners said the internet suspension made online transactions impossible.
Mohammad Mustaqsin drives a cycle rickshaw in the area and said that the road blockade did not let him make trips to Vaishali in East Delhi and Noida in Uttar Pradesh. On a daily basis, Mustaqsin would earn around Rs 500 but the blockade and the excess barricading has shortened the trips he can make, lessening his daily income by Rs 300.
“It has become worse after January 26,” said Mustaqsin, 42. “It is easier for those running battery rickshaws because they can take the longer diverted routes.”
For the last two months, he has only been able to take trips limited to 2 kms to the Murga Mandi in Ghazipur.
Among the shopkeepers, some want the protestors to clear the area.
Jaspal Rawat, a 50-year-old local resident who runs a grocery shop, said the events of January 26 had made him question whether the protestors were indeed farmers. “This place was crowded,” he said. “There was loud noise, people were clicking selfies…they did not look like they were farmers.”
The crowds at the protest site had swelled on January 26 as many farmers had driven down from villages in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand to take part in the tractor parade. Farmer unions said they had been unable to brief them about the routes, which led to confusion and clashes with the police.
Rawat is not convinced: “I feel the farmers are wrong.”
On January 28, he said businessmen like him had shuttered their shops after the Ghazipur administration had ordered the protestors to clear the stretch.
“We thought something might happen and we are right next to it,” Rawat recalled.
That night, farmers poured in from Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh after Bharatiya Kisan Union leader Rakesh Tikait made an emotional appeal. three days later, the police built the fortifications.
Rituraj Mishra, a resident of West Vinod Nagar in East Delhi, runs a medical store in Ghazipur. After the fortifications came up, he spent nearly 40 minutes for a ten minute drive from his house till his store.
The route complications had reduced the number of patients visiting nearby hospitals, especially Max Hospital, Vaishali, he claimed, leading to a drastic fall in his business. “Our business per day is zero,” said Mishra. “There are barely any patients coming, this area is usually jammed but since the barricading no one has come.”
He said he does not support the farmers’ protest but it was necessary for both parties – the government and the farmers – to reach a “compromise” for businesses in the area to run smoothly.
Other residents, however, expressed cautious support for the farmers.
“It is very difficult to comment on this [standoff] because we are not aware of the facts and figures, we do not know the actual conversations among farmers,” said Amit Bansal, a shopkeeper in Ghazipur, who lives in Vasundhara Enclave in East Delhi.
From a 10-minute commute by car, Bansal now spends nearly an hour to get to his shop. “We have problems because our internet is not working,” he said. “There is no online business.”
But he said he recognised that the protesting farmers would not have travelled all the way from their villages had they not had serious concerns about the farm laws.
“How big are our problems compared to the farmers?” he asked. “If their issues are bigger then ours are nothing compared to it.”
The sentiment in Singhu village on the Delhi-Haryana border was even more sympathetic towards the farmers. The village, with a population of over one lakh, predominantly lies in Delhi, but a small part spills over into Haryana.
Ever since farmers from Punjab and Haryana had driven up to the border in November, Delhi Police had placed barricades on the highway to block them from entering the capital.
But after January 26, the police added an extra layer of barricades, three kms away from the protest site. Entry to Singhu village from Delhi now involves crossing a three-feet-deep ditch and a long walk.
This has not only made it difficult for the residents of Singhu to travel to the capital, but also to move within the village.
Most residents directed their frustration over the barricades at the police.
“Why have police barricaded us?” asked Jagbir Pradhan, a 73-year old farmer who lives in the village. “Where will we go in an emergency? We are trapped from all sides.”
“This is the last village of Delhi, the entire traffic of the GT Karnal Road has come into the village,” Pradhan said, adding the situation has been this way for the past two months.
While some residents of Singhu are farmers, many others are migrant workers from states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar who work in neighbouring factories. Others run small businesses.
Rakesh Mishra, a 35-year-old who hails from Sultanpur, Uttar Pradesh, buys vegetables from Narela in north Delhi and sells them in Singhu. His transportation costs have gone up from Rs 100 to Rs 300.
“It is such a long route now,” said Mishra. “Everyone wants them [farmers] to leave.”
Mishra’s colleague from Sultanpur who runs a grocery shop in the village agreed with him. “There have been 12 meetings and till now the public does not know what is the nuksan [loss] in them [the laws],” said Shailesh Mishra, 40.
Some residents said they were not troubled by the protesting farmers. They also dissociated themselves from those claiming to be locals who had barged into the Singhu protest site on January 29, asking the protestors to vacate the area. Fact-checkers had identified many in the mob as BJP supporters who had falsely posed as locals.
“We are not living in fear [of the farmers], those who say this are BJP people,” said an elderly woman who refused to be identified. She has been residing in the village since 1968 and hails from Jhajjar district in Haryana.
“There is a problem in coming [into the village] and even we want a solution, but look at them [farmers], they are sitting in the cold and rain, is it easy?” said the woman.
Some residents were bothered by the constant stream of traffic into the village – both journalists and other visitors wanting to access the protest site, but also those who were travelling between Delhi and Haryana. They said they were tired of being asked for directions.
“The only conversation is when people ask us where to go,” said Mahendar Singh, a 71-year-old retired police official and resident of the village. “We cannot even play cards peacefully.”