Should farmers call off their protest at Delhi’s borders and return home in the wake of a worrying second wave of Covid-19 that is battering the national capital? With at least one oxygen supply firm allegedly complaining that its trucks are being forced to take longer routes to reach Delhi’s hospitals due to blockades at key border points, a debate has erupted over the morality of the protest that began in November-end.
Farmers so far have refused to budge, saying they have no plans of going back to their villages and that “there is no corona" at the protest sites. They have also rejected blocking oxygen supply trucks.
“I wonder whether the farmers have a commitment to India and fellow Indians. Will the farmers be happy if people died in hospitals because oxygen got delayed? Where does the commitment of the farmers lie?” Meenakshi Lekhi, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s Member of Parliament from New Delhi, told News18. “The court should pass an order to send them back given how the second wave is raging. Ask a person whose father is awaiting oxygen in hospital…,” Lekhi added.
The debate raged after government officials said a major oxygen supplier requested for a “green corridor” for its trucks headed for Delhi, as these vehicles had to take a nearly 100-km detour from the supplier’s unit in Uttar Pradesh due to a blockade at the Ghazipur border. A similar situation was being faced at the Singhu border while ferrying oxygen from Panipat to Delhi. When approached by News18, the supplier did not offer a comment officially.
‘Farmers Should Go Back’
Besides the road blockades, a senior government official told News18, farmers themselves were at risk of contracting Covid-19 and their sit-in sites could become “super-spreaders.” The official said little social distancing or mask protocol was followed by farmers, and added that the protesters kept shuttling between Delhi and their villages in Punjab. “Look at the high Covid numbers of Punjab — which may well have a link with the movement of farmers between Delhi and Punjab,” the official said, an argument rejected by the Congress.
Thousands of farmers, mostly from Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh, have been protesting at Delhi’s borders for close to five months, demanding the repeal of three agricultural laws passed by Parliament last year. They say the laws will erode their bargaining power, weaken the mandi system and benefit corporates, even as the government rejects this argument. It says the laws will usher in much-needed reforms in agriculture and help farmers boost their income.
Several rounds of talks between the Centre and 41 protesting farmer unions have remained deadlocked. The government has offered concessions including suspension of the laws for 18 months, which the unions have rejected. They have been steadfast in their demand for a complete repeal of the laws. On January 12, the Supreme Court stayed the implementation of the laws and asked a three-member committee to prepare a report after consulting all stakeholders. In March-end, the committee submitted a report to the court.
A senior BJP functionary pointed out that the farm laws were on hold as per the Supreme Court’s orders. “The government had offered a longer suspension too. Farmers can go back now and return after a year or so if they are still not convinced by the new laws,” the BJP leader said.
‘It’s Their Call’
The Congress said it was totally up to the farmers if they wanted to suspend the protest in view of the second Covid wave. “It is for them to decide…it is totally their call and timing. I would say they have a responsibility towards their life and their family,” Punjab Congress president and senior party leader Sunil Jakhar told News18. He strongly rejected the argument that the farmers’ protest was responsible for the high Covid numbers in Punjab. “There is no evidence for that. Covid has mainly spiked in the urban centres of Punjab and has not reflected in the rural areas, while farmers have shuttled only between their villages and Delhi in some measure,” Jakhar argued.
He said the central government lost all credibility on the Covid front with the BJP throwing “caution to the wind” in its election rallies. “The Centre has lost the moral authority as it first needs to practise what it preaches. No one believes their warnings on Covid when they themselves keep doing rallies,” Jakhar told News18.
He said the health ministry should instead send an “apolitical team” to sensitise farmers about the “real and present threat of Covid”, but added that the claim of oxygen supplies being blocked due to the demonstrations was “rubbish” and was being floated in the media to discredit the protesters.
‘No Corona Here’
Senior farmers’ leader and Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) president, Balbir Singh Rajewal, said farmers would neither call off their protest nor suspend it and go back. “There is no Covid at all at the protest sites. We do not have even one case. So this whole talk about ‘we must go back’ is a big conspiracy against the farmers’ movement, and we know that once we go back to Punjab, the government will never allow us to return to Delhi. So we are not going anywhere,” Rajewal told News18.
The farm leader said protesters did not stop any oxygen supply truck, and added that police were manning the blockade sites and turning away vehicles. “There are many roads and routes to Delhi, besides the ones we have blocked at Singhu and Ghazipur. Some other routes have been dug up and barricaded by the police themselves,” Rajewal said.
He also spoke of the measures farmers had taken against Covid-19, such as “observing precautions, wearing masks, using sanitisers and setting up a 10-bed hospital at Singhu with a team of doctors in case an infection is reported”.
“There is no corona here (at the protest sites) and even if it emerges, we are not dependent on the government to fight it,” Rajewal said