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Police fire tear gas to stop farmers’ march in New Delhi

A farmer throws a jute gunny bag as tear gas is fired at the site of the protest at Shambhu barrier, a border crossing between Punjab and Haryana states, India, February 21, 2024. REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis

Pramod ThomasBy: Pramod Thomas

INDIAN police fired tear gas on Wednesday (21) to scatter thousands of protesting farmers as they sought to resume a march to Delhi after rejecting a government offer on prices for their produce, while authorities offered a fresh round of negotiations.

Fleeing the stinging gas and clouds of smoke, the farmers, some wearing medical masks, ran into the fields surrounding their gathering-point on a highway about 200 km (125 miles) north of New Delhi.

The police action came as the government of prime minister Narendra Modi made a new offer to resume talks on the farmers’ demands. Agriculture minister Arjun Munda urged the farmers to resolve their grievances through the talks.

“After the fourth round, the government is ready to discuss all the issues” such as guaranteed prices for the farmers’ crops, he posted on social network X, as the march resumed.

“I again invite the farmer leaders for discussion. It is important for us to maintain peace.”

Farmers’ leaders went into a huddle to discuss Wednesday’s offer after the police action brought the march to a halt, media said.

Top police and district officials were at the site, mediating between the leaders and the government, the Indian Express newspaper reported.

On Monday (19), the farmers’ groups had rejected the government’s previous proposal for five-year contracts and guaranteed support prices for produce such as corn, cotton and pulses.

The farmers, mostly from the northern state of Punjab, have been demanding higher prices backed by law for their crops. They form an influential bloc of voters Modi cannot afford to anger ahead of general elections due by May.

The farmers, accompanied by cranes and excavators, began marching at 0530 GMT from the spot where authorities had stopped them by erecting barricades on the border of Punjab state with Haryana, blocking a key highway.

“It is not right that such massive barricades have been placed to stop us,” said one of the farmers’ leaders, Jagjit Singh Dallewal. “We want to march to Delhi peacefully. If not, they should accede to our demands.”

Police in riot gear lined both sides of the highway as the farmers, gathering earlier amid morning fog, waved colourful flags emblazoned with the symbols of their unions, while loudspeakers urged them to fight for their rights.

Television images showed some wearing gas masks.

Late on Tuesday (20), Haryana police’s chief ordered the immediate seizure of the heavy equipment brought by the farmers, to keep protesters from using it to destroy barricades.

Police also asked owners of such equipment not to lend or rent it to protesters, as its use to harm security forces would be a criminal offence.

About 10,000 people had gathered on Wednesday, along with 1,200 tractors and wagons at Shambhu on the state border, police in Haryana posted on X, warning against the risk of stone-throwing as they were armed with sticks and stones.

Security was also stepped up at entry points to New Delhi, with police in riot gear manning barricades topped with barbed wire in some places, slowing traffic entering the city of more than 20 million and causing snarls.

Two key entry points north of the city have been shut for days and traffic diverted.

Sunday’s (18) government proposal of minimum support prices to farmers who diversify their crops to grow cotton, pigeon peas, black matpe, red lentils and corn was rejected by the protesters, who wanted additional foodgrains covered.

Similar protests two years ago, when farmers camped for two months at the border of New Delhi, forced Modi’s government to repeal a set of farm laws.

(Reuters)

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