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Indian farmers converge on Delhi to protest deregulation

For more than two months, farmers in India have camped just outside the capital, Delhi, demanding the repeal of new laws that deregulate agriculture, which directly employs near half the country’s 1.3 billion people. Special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro reports in partnership with the Under-Told Stories Project as part of his series, "Agents for Change.”

AIRED: January 25, 2021 | 0:06:54
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JUDY WOODRUFF: India celebrates Republic Day tomorrow, a holiday observed with elaborate

military parades.

This year, hundreds of thousands of protesting farmers are planning their own tractor parades.

For months, they have camped just outside the capital, Delhi, demanding the repeal of

new laws that deregulate agriculture, which directly employs near half of the country's

1.3 billion people.

Special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro has our report.

It's part of his series Agents For Change.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: The police have used tear gas, batons and, in near freezing temperatures,

water cannons to keep protesting farmers from entering Central Delhi.

Still, they have traveled hundreds, even thousands of miles and encircled the capital, protesting

the end of a system of subsidies and price guarantees that for decades have provided

some certainty, though hardly a comfortable livelihood.

Most visible in the crowds here are Sikhs from the breadbasket state of Punjab, their

hallmark turbans far more evident than face masks, despite the pandemic.

GURVINDER SINGH, United Sikhs: Well, they're sleeping under trolleys. They're sleeping

in their trucks. They're challenging the cold. They don't have resources.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Gurvinder Singh is with United Sikhs, a U.S.-based relief organization

that's provided water, medicines, blankets, even shoes to protesters.

United Sikhs has worked natural disasters from the Philippines to the horn of Africa.

But this one is different, says Singh, who lives in Dallas. It's a manmade disaster,

he says, and profoundly affects farming, where Sikhs have a rich tradition.

GURVINDER SINGH: It's farming as your legacy, as what your forefathers have bequeathed to

you. I'm an engineer. But whatever you are, you owe it to those seeds that were planted

in the soil that allowed you to flourish.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: The vast majority of India's farmers own fewer than three acres. For decades,

they have sold their produce in their home states, in government-sanctioned markets called

mandis, a system that guaranteed minimum prices on several key commodities.

The new laws take a deregulated, free market approach, and make no mention of minimum support

prices. Farmers can now sell to anyone anywhere. But small holders, like Dalvir Singh and Raju

Pradhan, say that's meaningless to them.

DALVIR SINGH, Farmer (through translator): We don't have the ability to take our crops

to a different country, to a different state. This whole law was designed for the corporates.

It is not in our favor.

RAJU PRADHAN, Farmer (through translator): They did the same thing with phones and reliance.

Now they are doing the same thing to agriculture. They are totally against the farmers.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: They fear conglomerates, like the Reliance group, which have grown

dominant as India has deregulated its economy, will now take over agriculture and put small

farmers out of business.

And they accuse Prime Minister Narendra Modi of doing the bidding of wealthy industrialists

like the Adani and Ambani families.

DALVIR SINGH (through translator): This country is ours. It's not Adani's or Ambani's or Modi's.

He's not the prime minister of the corporations. He's fighting for the rich. We are fighting

for our children.

NARENDRA MODI, Indian Prime Minister (through translator): There is a huge conspiracy under

way to confuse the farmers. They are being frightened that, after new reforms, farmers'

lands will be snatched by others.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Prime Minister Modi says the new laws will boost farmers' income and

productivity and lure private investment into an agricultural sector that's widely seen

as costly and inefficient, with outdated infrastructure.

NARENDRA MODI (through translator): Now, these people who are in opposition, they were also

in favor of these reforms when they were in power. But they couldn't make the decision

during their government and kept making false promises to farmers.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Despite Modi's reassurances, there could be some hard truths facing Indian

farmers, as they have elsewhere in the world.

I reached Sumit Ganguly, distinguished professor of political science at Indiana University.

SUMIT GANGULY, Indiana University (through translator): The family farm in the United

States is a kind of a romantic ideal anymore. It's unsustainable.

But this is how the world has evolved. And I'm afraid that evolution is now coming to

India. Over the longer haul, one could see a more successful agricultural bounty. But

it will probably come at some cost. A number of these small farmers, they will probably

get wiped out.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: And unlike industrialized countries or, more recently, China, he says,

India does not have factories to absorb displaced farmers or social programs to retrain them

in, say, entrepreneurship or specialty farming.

United Sikhs Gurvinder Singh shares these worries.

GURVINDER SINGH: There is no safety net, for example. There's no planning. And, unbelievably

this was done without any consultation, without any studies, without any engagement with those

who you're going to impact.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: His group is standing behind the protesters and has helped organized

huge rallies as far away as London and San Francisco.

Outside Delhi, as they huddle in camp-like vigil, the farmers insist they will stick

it out until their demands are met.

RAJU PRADHAN (through translator): Until we win and the government takes this back, until

then, whether it takes six months or a year, however long it takes, we will sit here.

TEJBIR SINGH, Farmer (through translator): I will tell you one benefit of this law. They

have brought us together. It's made us all brothers. We have become one.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: As the impasse drags on, talks to end it are being held in Delhi, in

perhaps the most serious pushback encountered by the Modi government, which enjoys a commanding

parliamentary majority. Small farmers may also be facing a reckoning on their future.

But, for now, they also form one of the biggest voting blocs in the world's largest democracy.

For the "PBS NewsHour," with Rakesh Nagar in New Delhi, this is Fred de Sam Lazaro in

St. Paul, Minnesota.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Fred's reporting is a partnership with the Under-Told Stories Project at the

University of St. Thomas in Minnesota.