Tractors fill streets of New Delhi as farmers' protests interrupt Republic Day celebrations

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Tens of thousands of farmers have driven a convoy of tractors into the Indian capital during national Republic Day celebrations as part of agricultural protests that are rattling the Government.

The capital’s roads were swarmed by rows upon rows of tractors bearing the flags of India and farm unions.

Farmers, wearing distinctive colourful turbans, shouted slogans against Prime Minister Narendra Modi and what they called his “black laws”.

Thousands more marched on foot while dancing and singing, and at one place they were showered with flower petals by residents, some of whom recorded the unprecedented rally on their phones.

“We want to show Modi our strength,” Satpal Singh, a farmer who travelled into the capital on a tractor with his family of five, said.

“We will not surrender.”

Police in riot gear used tear gas and water cannons at two locations to push back the protesters who tried to knock down barricades.

Authorities also parked large trucks to barricade multiple routes so farmers could not march to the interiors of the capital.

The farmers’ leaders said more than 10,000 tractors were to march through the capital for the rally and thousands of volunteers would try to help the police in keeping order.

People climb over large yellow barricades in the streets of New DelhiPeople climb over large yellow barricades in the streets of New Delhi
Protesting farmers jumped police barricades to march to the capital in New Delhi.(AP: Altaf Qadri)

The protests were set off by new agricultural laws Parliament passed in September.

Mr Modi’s Government insists the laws will benefit farmers and boost production through private investment, but farmers fear cartelisation and commercialisation of agriculture will devastate their earnings.

Farmers first tried to march to New Delhi in November but were stopped by police. Since then, unfazed by overnight chilly winter temperatures, they have hunkered down with food and fuel supplies and threatened to besiege the capital until the farm laws are repealed.

The Government has offered to amend the laws and suspend their implementation for 18 months, but farmers insist they will settle for nothing less than a complete repeal.

They are planning another march by foot to the Indian Parliament on February 1, when the country’s new budget will be presented.

Protesters seek to disrupt Republic Day ceremonies

The tractor rally overshadowed the Republic Day celebrations in New Delhi even as the annual military parade was scaled down because of the coronavirus pandemic.

A thin crowd assembled beside the ceremonial Rajpath boulevard in New Delhi to watch a display of the country’s military power and cultural diversity.

People wore masks and adhered to social distancing as police and military battalions marched along the parade route.

Several states displayed their floats to present their culture and the Army showcased its latest equipment during the parade.

Three tanks drive up a long street. Behind fences, crowds of people watch on. Indian flags are visibleThree tanks drive up a long street. Behind fences, crowds of people watch on. Indian flags are visible
Military tanks move through the ceremonial Rajpath boulevard during India’s Republic Day celebrations.(AP: Manish Swarup)

Republic Day marks the anniversary of the adoption of the country’s constitution on January 26, 1950.

Farmers are the latest group to upset Mr Modi’s image of imperturbable dominance in Indian politics.

Since returning to power for a second consecutive term, Mr Modi’s Government has been marked by several convulsions. Now, in the form of farmers, he is facing a growing rebellion from India’s most influential voting bloc.

Agriculture supports more than half of the country’s 1.4 billion people, but the economic clout of farmers has diminished over the last three decades. Once accounting for a third of India’s gross domestic product, farmers now account for only 15 per cent of the country’s $2.9 trillion economy.

People sit on tractors, which have been parked in front of traffic cones on the streetPeople sit on tractors, which have been parked in front of traffic cones on the street
Farmers brought their tractors to the Delhi-Uttar Pradesh border on Monday in preparation for the rally.(AP: Manish Swarup)

Devinder Sharma, an agriculture expert who has spent the past two decades campaigning for income equality for Indian farmers, said they were not only protesting against the reforms but also “challenging the entire economic design of the country”.

“The anger that you see is compounded anger,” Mr Sharma said.

“Inequality is growing in India and farmers are becoming poorer. Policy planners have failed to realise this and have sucked the income from the bottom to the top.

“The farmers are only demanding what is their right.”