India: clashes between police and farmers unhappy with reforms

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New Delhi | Indian police on Thursday used tear gas and water cannons in clashes with several thousand farmers who wanted to protest in New Delhi against recent agricultural market reforms.

The peasant condition is a major political issue in India where two out of three Indians live in rural areas. Farmer suicides have numbered in the thousands in recent years due to debt and drought.

On Thursday, the police tried to prevent farmers coming to demonstrate from the state of Punjab (North) to cross a bridge into Haryana about 200 km from New Delhi.

Some of the demonstrators, armed with sticks and stones, threw down protective barriers installed by the police, who fired tear gas and fired water cannons, which increased the anger of the demonstrators.

After two hours of face-to-face meetings that caused a big traffic jam on one of the busiest Indian highways connecting the capital to several northern states, the police finally allowed the passage of the marchers to the capital.

By virtue of reforms adopted at the end of September, peasants now have the freedom to sell their products to a buyer and at the price of their choice and no longer only on the markets regulated by the State (the “mandis”) with fixed prices.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi hailed “a complete transformation of the agricultural sector” which will benefit “tens of millions of farmers”.

But the Congress Party, the main opposition party that holds power in the Punjab and has supported the protests, accuses these reforms of putting peasants at the mercy of big private buyers, without any bargaining power.

“The peasants have been demonstrating peacefully in the Punjab for almost two months without any problem,” said the chief minister of that state, Amarinder Singh, on Thursday.

He called on Mr. Modi’s party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP, Hindu nationalist), to instruct states he leads like Haryana “not to indulge in using the hard way against farmers”.

In the Punjab, protesting peasants have blocked train traffic for nearly two months before giving in to public and government pressure and lifting their roadblocks.

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