Sonepat (Haryana), November 30
Amid fears that the “Delhi Chalo” protests by farmers will lead to coronavirus spreading faster, their leaders have said the “black laws” enacted at the Centre are a bigger threat than the contagion.
There had been few signs of social distancing as thousands of farmers from Punjab and Haryana began their protest last week against the three new agro-marketing laws, setting off on a march to the national capital.
On the way, they skirmished with police at barricades and since Friday are massed at Delhi’s entry points, many of them sheltering inside tractor-trolleys.
Masks appear to be a rarity and there is little attempt at keeping distance from each other, safeguards meant to prevent the infection from spreading.
But as experts fear that the event could become a coronavirus “superspreader”, farm leaders say there are more pressing concerns before them.
“The new farm laws brought by the (Narendra) Modi government are a bigger threat than coronavirus as farmers fear they will lose their livelihood with the implementation of these laws,” Bhartiya Kisan Union (Ekta Ugrahan) president Joginder Singh Ugrahan told PTI over the phone.
Kisan Mazdoor Sangharsh Committee general secretary Sarwan Singh Pandher asked why coronavirus posed a serious threat to life only during the farmers’ agitation, and not during the recent Bihar assembly polls.
“When Bihar elections took place, where was COVID-19? When any political gathering takes place, where is coronavirus,” he asked, in an apparent reference to the election rallies.
He claimed that the issue comes up only when farmers begin agitation for their rights.
The Delhi Police initially declined permission for the farmers’ protest in the city, citing the threat of COVID-19.
On Sunday, Haryana Chief Minister ML Khattar lashed out at his Punjab counterpart Amarinder Singh, saying he will be responsible if the gathering of farmers worsens the coronavirus situation. Singh has backed the protest.
A spokesperson for the BKU’s Haryana unit, led by Gurnam Singh Charuni, on Monday claimed that farmers were trying their best to keep COVID-19 at bay.
“As much as we can, we are trying to follow the guidelines. But at the moment thousands of farmers are saying that getting the Centre’s farm laws rolled back is the first priority as these will anyway destroy them,” he said.
He said it was now up to the Centre to accept their demands.
When asked if they fear that the infection may spread as thousands have gathered over a large area, he said: “No farmer fears this disease at the moment. All they have on their minds is to get these laws rolled back.”
In Sonipat, a Haryana Health Department official said they have so far distributed 5,000 masks to the protesting farmers.
“Also, after every kilometre we have stationed an ambulance. Mobile toilets have also been installed at various points and sanitisation is being regularly carried out,” he said.
The health department also plans to carry out random tests for COVID-19.
“We are trying to take all necessary measures so that everyone remains safe amid the pandemic,” he said, adding: “We are also urging farmers to wear masks and try to maintain social distancing.”
Unions have expressed apprehension that the new agri-marketing laws enacted at the Centre will lead to the dismantling of the minimum support price (MSP) system, leaving farmers the mercy of big corporates.
The government, however, says that the new laws give farmers options to get higher prices for their crops and the MSP regime will still continue. PTI