Indian farmers walk off fields in ‘Bharat Bandh’ strike for higher crop prices

Day-long strike to mostly affect northern states, where farm unions have strong presence

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Farmers in India went on a day-long nationwide strike, or Bharat Bandh, to mount pressure on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government to ensure higher prices for their crops.

The Samyukta Kisan Morcha, one of India’s largest farmer unions, urged its members to refrain from going to their fields on Friday in a show of support for protesting farmers from Punjab and Haryana.

The call for the strike comes amid a violent stand-off between farmers from northern states and the police, who blocked motorways to prevent them from marching into the capital, New Delhi.

“The farmers have been asked to shun work on farms, or not go to markets for any purchases tomorrow,” said Pawan Khatana, the leader of Bharatiya Kisan Union. “Traders and transporters have also been exhorted to join the strike.”

Several agricultural markets in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Haryana were closed on Friday.

Thousands of farmers from Punjab and Haryana, which produce 60 per cent of India's wheat, embarked on a march towards New Delhi on Tuesday to put pressure on the government to introduce a national law guaranteeing a minimum support price for crops.

But they met strong resistance from authorities who stationed police and paramilitary forces and blocked a main motorway that connects the states with Delhi.

The police put up barricades, concrete blocks, concertina wires and iron nails to prevent the farmers from progressing to the capital.

In Haryana, ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party, police and paramilitary personnel used tear gas shells, some dropped by drones, and allegedly fired rubber bullets at the protesters, who retaliated by pelting them with stones.

More than 50 farmers sustained serious injuries after pellets fired by police pierced their bodies. One ageing farmer reportedly died of asphyxiation caused by the smoke of a tear gas shell.

Dozens of police personnel were also injured in the confrontation.

The strike has been primarily called in rural India where the livelihood of 47 per cent of the country's 130 billion people is dependent on agriculture, according to government data.

Historian Irfan Habib, economic historian Nasir Tyabji, economist Prabhat Patnaik and journalist P Sainath are among the noted personalities who have supported the strike.

Emergency services – including hospitals, pharmacies and ambulance operators – will remain open.

The impact of the strike was also seen in New Delhi where police and paramilitary forces stationed at entry points to the city blocked key motorways, resulting in the diversion of traffic.

There was congestion on the main roads connecting Delhi to Haryana state, with commuters struggling to get public transport.

The leaders of the farmers met government officials three times amid the continuing standoff but talks were unfruitful.

On Thursday, Jagjit Singh Dallewal, one of the leaders, said the farmer unions were set to meet the government on Sunday.

“The protest will continue peacefully … We will not do anything else. We will appeal to the farmers too. On Sunday, if we do not get any positive result, then we will continue the protest,” Mr Dallewal said.

The latest confrontation comes four years after year-long farmers’ protests in 2020 that were triggered by new laws to allow contract farming, the sale of produce on the free market and the deregulation of food commodities from government control.

The farmers had claimed that the laws would benefit only big corporations.

The protest was the single biggest challenge to Mr Modi's Hindu nationalist BJP government since it came to power in 2014. His party lost in Punjab's state elections in 2022.

The latest protest comes months before another general election in which Mr Modi is seeking a third term.

Updated: February 16, 2024, 9:36 AM