Thousands of Indian farmers began advancing towards New Delhi on foot and on tractors on Tuesday to put pressure on the government to meet their demands, including imposing a minimum price for their produce.
The Samyukt Kisan Morcha, an umbrella body of about 250 farmers' groups from the northern states of Punjab and Haryana, which produce 60 per cent of India's wheat, called for the Dilli Chalo march after talks on Monday with Agriculture Minister Arjun Munda ended without an agreement.
Three years ago, a similar protest by farmers forced Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government to repeal three contentious farm laws.
Besides a national law guaranteeing a minimum support price (MSP) for crops, the farmers are demanding that the government write off their agricultural debts and withdraw all cases filed against them during their year-long protest against the agriculture laws.
Most Indian farmers have smallholdings of two hectares or less. Farmer suicides over debt and crop failures are common as the agriculture sector remains heavily dependent on seasonal rains.
“We do not think the government is serious on any of our demands,” Sarwan Singh Pandher, co-ordinator of Kisan Mazdoor Morcha, one of the farmers' unions, told reporters after their meeting with Mr Munda ended just before midnight.
More than 1,500 tractors loaded with enough provisions for six months were reported to be travelling towards Delhi in what is being seen as an attempt to repeat the agitation of 2020, when tens of thousands of farmers turned motorways leading to the capital into tent cities.
Authorities in Delhi and the bordering states of Uttar Pradesh and Haryana stationed police and paramilitary forces at entry points to the city. Barriers including concrete blocks, concertina wire and parked lorries sealed off the capital's border at Singhu, Tikri and Ghazipur, causing traffic jams up to 5km long.
In Haryana, authorities banned public gatherings and suspended mobile internet and bulk SMS services.
“Why is the government scared of protesters and putting up barricades if they think their laws are fine? They should let us protest – this is our right,” said Gurpreet Singh, a farmer from Punjab.
The farmers' protest in 2020 was sparked by new laws to allow the sale of produce on the free market, contract farming and the deregulation of food commodities from government control. The farmers claimed the laws would benefit only big corporations.
The protest was the single biggest challenge to Mr Modi's Hindu nationalist government since it came to power in 2014. His Bharatiya Janata Party lost state elections in Punjab in 2022.
The new protest comes months before another general election in which Mr Modi is seeking to win a third term.