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Indian Farmers Demand Repeal Of Agriculture Industry Reform Laws

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

In India, tens of thousands of farmers living on the outskirts of India's capital have been protesting against new laws that deregulate the agriculture industry. They fear for their livelihoods and say they will stay there until these laws are repealed. NPR's Sushmita Pathak has this report.

(CROSSTALK)

SUSHMITA PATHAK, BYLINE: Protesting farmers have made highways leading to New Delhi their new home. They do laundry on the street and sleep in the back of trucks lined with straw and blankets. There's even an open-air barbershop offering free haircuts.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Singing in non-English language)

PATHAK: We won't let Modi get away with this deception, protesters sing. They're referring to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the three reforms he got passed this fall to deregulate the farm sector.

V M SINGH: You can't take people for a ride in the name of reforms when the reforms are bad.

PATHAK: V.M Singh is the head of a farmers association. Most of his fellow protesters come from the Northern Indian states of Punjab and Haryana and mainly grow wheat and rice. For years, the government has bought the bulk of their grain at a guaranteed rate. It's like a safety net, says agricultural economist Seema Bathla.

SEEMA BATHLA: If market doesn't work - let's say prices fall - government is there to buy, so there's a price assurance.

PATHAK: But the new laws open up the market to private buyers who will not be bound by a price guarantee. The farmers feel they'll lose their safety net. They can barely scrape a living as it is, says Bathla.

BATHLA: The farmers have this anger that their tractor cost, machinery cost, manure, fertilizer - all prices are going up, but their income has not been increasing.

PATHAK: Modi says the new laws will give farmers new opportunities.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER NARENDRA MODI: (Speaking Hindi).

PATHAK: "Farmers will have the freedom to sell directly to private companies," he says. Modi insists that if they have unsold surplus grain, the government will continue to procure it. There are doubts, though.

R RAMAKUMAR: Farmers believe that procurement might not have a long life.

PATHAK: Agricultural economist R. Ramakumar says the government's own advisers have urged it to limit how much grain it buys. Government warehouses are already overflowing with surplus grain. Farmers are also skeptical about the reforms because of the way in which they were rushed through Parliament - without much debate.

RAMAKUMAR: All these come together to create a very bad impression, a complete absence of trust between farmers and the government.

PATHAK: That lack of trust has led to a long stalemate. Five rounds of talks between farmers and the government have failed. India's Supreme Court is also trying to mediate. But farmer leader V.M. Singh says they'll keep protesting until the laws are scrapped. Farmers have a lot of patience, he says.

SINGH: When we lose a crop, the patience of the farmer is such that he waits for the next crop to come. This is a natural patience given by the almighty to us.

PATHAK: Farmers spend their whole lives waiting for the next crop, he says. They'll wait for justice, too.

For NPR News, I'm Sushmita Pathak in Mumbai.

(SOUNDBITE OF SAMEER GUPTA'S "JANGLE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.