Indian farmers are seeking to rebuild the momentum behind long-running protests against controversial farm laws that they want the government to scrap.
Undeterred by the scorching summer heat and still-high levels of coronavirus infections, hundreds of farmers have been massing over the past days at entry points around India's capital, New Delhi, where they had camped for months during the height of the demonstrations that began in the second half of last year.
The farmers, in returning to the protest sites, may have been encouraged by an easing in coronavirus restrictions.
Indian Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar said last week the government is ready to resume talks with the farmers but asked that they point out their objections to the provisions in the three farm laws with sound logic.
The laws were passed by the Indian parliament in September. The government claims the market reforms will make the agriculture sector more efficient, but the protesting farmers claim they will be worse off.
The government and farmers' unions have held 11 rounds of talks in an attempt to break the deadlock. The talks stalled following widespread violence by some farmers in New Delhi on Jan 26, India's Republic Day.
After the 10th round of talks, the government in January had proposed suspending the farm laws for 18 months, but the farmers held out for complete repeal.
"The government will have to withdraw the three farm laws permanently if it wants to end the protests," said Rakesh Tikait, a spokesperson for the Indian Farmers' Union, an umbrella organization of over 40 unions that are leading the agitation around the national capital.
Farmers' unions are preparing for a protracted battle. They want to spread the protests throughout the country, if the laws are not repealed completely, representatives of the farmers said.
"Once the monsoon gets over, post-July, groups of peasants led by prominent union leaders will travel across India's most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, and later in other states," said Yudhbir Singh, the general secretary of the Indian Farmers' Union.
A surge in COVID-19 cases since March led to a sharp drop in the number of protesters at three sites outside New Delhi, and due to labor demands for the harvest season.
But protesters have once again started to join the protest sites in large numbers, Singh said.
"These farm laws are a bigger threat to us than COVID," Satnam Singh, a protester at the Tikri border site between Delhi and Haryana state, told local media.
"We will survive the COVID-19 situation but if we do not resist the farm laws brought by the (Narendra) Modi government, our future is doomed," said Balvir Singh Bidhuri, a farmer at a protest site in Singhu, outside Delhi. Officials have said the laws will eventually benefit the farmers.
Those at the protest sites have been building concrete structures for accommodation as a means of coping with the scorching summer. "It looks like they won't leave for the next few years," said Bidhuri.
With the prospect of revived mass protests spreading, health experts have advised people to continue to follow anti-pandemic measures and avoid large gatherings for at least the next year to avert a possible third wave of infections in India. On Sunday, the daily case count dropped to 80,834, from a peak of 414,188 confirmed infections on May 7. But deaths for that day were recorded at 3,303, according to World Health Organization data. The country had more than 29.4 million cases with more than 370,300 deaths as of Sunday.
Farmers on June 5 burned copies of the farm laws outside the offices and homes of leaders of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in Chandigarh, Punjab and Haryana. The three farm bills were promulgated on that day 12 months ago.
The laws passed by the parliament are the Farmers' Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act 2020, the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act 2020, and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act 2020.
India's main opposition party, the Indian National Congress, suggested the only way to end the farmers' protest is to withdraw the farm laws and called on the government to do so.