Farmers from various States, who responded to the Samyukt Kisan Morcha’s call to protest against fuel price hikes and the rising costs of essential commodities, showed up in much smaller numbers on Thursday than at the peak of the agitation, which has now completed seven months. Some farmer leaders admit that there are challenges in sustaining the attention of protestors, the public and policy makers over such a long period of time.
Noting that petrol and diesel prices have hit the ₹100 per litre mark in many States, making these common fuels more expensive than aviation fuel, the SKM demanded prices be halved without any delay. “In 2014, the excise tax on diesel and petrol ranged from ₹3.56 rupees to ₹9.48 per litre; in 2021, it has gone up to ₹31.80 per litre of diesel and ₹32.90 for petrol,” said an SKM statement. “Similar is the case of unaffordable prices of cooking gas. Recently, there has been a hike of ₹25/ per cylinder. There have been 62 number of hikes in fuel prices in 2021 alone,” it added.
The SKM said there were reports of protests from locations in at least 13 States. At some locations in Punjab, tractors lined the sides of the road. In most States, protestors carried empty gas cylinders and banners. Although this is an issue affecting common citizens as well as farmers, the numbers of people at each protest were relatively small, nowhere near the thousands who joined rallies during the heady winter days when the agitation was at its peak.
“This is a strategic decision. Rather than giving one location for a mass rally, we asked people to gather at any location on a State or National Highway, so although the numbers at each location may have been smaller, there were many more locations of protest,” said Abhimanyu Kohar, an SKM leader and spokesperson for the Rashtriya Kisan Mahasangh. He was part of a 500-strong protest in Sonipat in Haryana, where farmers pulling their tractors with a rope, demonstrating their plight due to the crippling cost of fuel.
Mr. Kohar also pointed out that with the ongoing paddy cultivation, which is labour intensive, many farmers are not able to join the protest sites daily. “Once we realised the protest will go on for months, we asked farmers to come in batches of 15 from their villages instead. When they return to the fields, another group will come. We must understand the practical aspect. But the enthusiasm of farmers is still 100% to ensure that the farm laws are repealed,” he added.
Another SKM leader, Hannan Mollah, also emphasised that the unprecedented duration of the agitation called for different methods. “Such a continuous, long protest has not been seen before in Indian history. So we need to keep raising new issues to keep the protests alive in the public eye also,” said Mr. Mollah, who is also general secretary of the All India Kisan Sabha. “Lakhs of people cannot sit for months and years. The main movement is at the gates of the capital,” he said, estimating that about 30,000 people remain at the sites on the Delhi border now.
The next major event on the farmers agenda is the upcoming monsoon session of Parliament, during which they hope to protest in batches of 200 outside the House. The SKM hopes this will keep the spotlight on their demands, especially among policy makers.