Behind Indian protests against Modi farm reforms

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The farmers say they have enough flour, potatoes and other provisions to stay put for six months if Prime Minister Narendra Modi does not meet their demand: a repeal of new laws that he has described as the biggest farm reforms in the country in decades and trade analysts have hailed as a booster shot for the world food market.

The sea of unmasked people at the heavily barricaded protest site on the main highway into northern Delhi is the biggest challenge Modi has faced from India’s politically powerful farmers since he took office six years ago, and is a chink in his otherwise immense personal popularity.

The laws enacted by parliament in September are aimed at linking potential bulk buyers, such as WalMart Inc, Reliance Industries Ltd and Adani Enterprises Ltd , directly with farmers, bypassing government-regulated wholesale markets and layers of commission agents.

But more than 60 rice, wheat and potato growers from the farm states of Punjab and Haryana told Reuters the government was trying to privatise agriculture by eliminating the agents, who are a vital cog of the farm economy and for thousands of farmers, the main line of credit.

The middlemen provide quick funds for seeds and fertilisers, and even for family emergencies, said the farmers. The agents also help grade, weigh, pack and sell harvests to buyers.

While the farmers camped out on the highway are mainly from Haryana and Punjab, they claim to have support from all over the country. The All India Agricultural Workers Union, which claims to represent millions of rural farm hands, has vowed to launch a nationwide blockade this week to support the demands.

The protesters said a move to eliminate middlemen in the eastern state of Bihar had failed to draw new investment and its farmers were worse off as they often had to resort to fire sales in the absence of organised wholesale markets.

“Some landholders from Bihar now work our farms,” said 45-year-old Sukhbinder Singh, who said he grows wheat, potatoes and mustard in his 20-acre farm in Haryana.

By his side, another farmer made tea next to his tarpaulin-covered trailer stuffed with flour, potatoes, mattresses and blankets.

“This is the time for us to grow winter crops back in the village,” Singh said. “But if we don’t protest now, our next generation will curse us for not fighting the fight. The agents and us are interdependent.”❐

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