Asia

Amid rain and bitter cold, India’s protesting farmers vow not to back down

For more than 40 days, tens of thousands of farmers have blocked highways leading into India’s capital to protest sweeping agricultural policy changes that they fear will endanger their livelihoods.

Altaf Qadri/AP

Altaf Qadri/AP

On the northern edge of Delhi, the protest is a city within a city: an encampment composed of parked tractors and trailers stretching several miles along what used to be a busy national highway.

It has outdoor kitchens, laundries, pharmacies, public toilets and a mechanical street-sweeping truck.

Altaf Qadri/AP

Altaf Qadri/AP

At night, there is biting cold. Morning brings damp fog. The roads have turned to churning mud after unusually heavy winter rains. Mosquitoes are a menace.

Altaf Qadri/AP

But many protesters refuse to complain. “Mauj!” responded Mahinder Kaur, a 66-year-old farmer, when asked about daily challenges. In north India, it’s a word that conveys delight.

Altaf Qadri/AP

Altaf Qadri/AP

Altaf Qadri/AP

Altaf Qadri/AP

The protesters say their demands are simple: The Modi government must withdraw three laws passed in September that deregulate the buying and selling of agricultural goods.

Altaf Qadri/AP

Despite numerous rounds of talks between the government and farmer unions, however, both sides remain entrenched.

On Tuesday, India’s Supreme Court suspended implementation of the three laws until further notice, but farmer leaders gave no sign that they would call off the protest.

Altaf Qadri/AP

A barber volunteers his services to the protesting farmers on a highway along the Delhi-Uttar Pradesh state border.

Altaf Qadri/AP

Altaf Qadri/AP

The farmers are readying for a long haul. Last week, they organized a mobile rally where hundreds of tractors rolled along highways near Delhi.

Farmer organizations are planning a larger demonstration for India’s Republic Day on Jan. 26, a national holiday commemorating the birth of the country’s constitution.

Altaf Qadri/AP

Toiletries line a highway bridge at the protest encampment.

Altaf Qadri/AP

Altaf Qadri/AP

A farmer rests under the belly of a tractor trolley.

Altaf Qadri/AP

Altaf Qadri/AP

Altaf Qadri/AP

Despite the optimism on display, the conditions are difficult. Several dozen farmers have died of heart attacks and illness as the protest stretches into a second month, farmer unions say. Four farmers have reportedly died by suicide.

Altaf Qadri/AP

Nathu Singh, an 86-year-old farmer, smokes a bidi, or hand-rolled tobacco, after waking up in the back of his tractor trolley.

Altaf Qadri/AP

Altaf Qadri/AP

Altaf Qadri/AP

Police officers sit on a road divider near the protesting farmers.

Altaf Qadri/AP

Altaf Qadri/AP

Volunteer teachers taking part in the farmer protests give lessons to children from a nearby village in a makeshift tent at the Delhi-Haryana state border.

Money Sharma/AFP/Getty Images

Money Sharma/AFP/Getty Images

The farmers — many of whom belong to India’s Sikh religious minority and hail from the states of Punjab and Haryana — have been buoyed by support from near and far.

Money Sharma/AFP/Getty Images

Money Sharma/AFP/Getty Images

A supporter from the Christian community dressed as Santa Claus visits the demonstrating farmers on Christmas Day.

Anindito Mukherjee/Getty Images

Anindito Mukherjee/Getty Images

For the past month, Mehr Singh, 62, has slept in the back of a trailer with about a dozen men from his village 150 miles away.

Early each morning, he bathes at a local temple that opened its premises to protesters. He eats at the large community kitchens at the protest site — one of which has a machine capable of making 1,500 chapatis an hour.

Anindito Mukherjee/Getty Images

In three months, the wheat crop Singh planted will be ready to harvest. But he doesn’t think he will be there to oversee it. “My family told me to return after we achieve our demands,” he said. “Even if it takes a year.”

Anindito Mukherjee/Getty Images

Altaf Qadri/AP

A group of paramilitary soldiers in riot gear stand guard on the highway blocked by the protesting farmers.

Altaf Qadri/AP

Altaf Qadri/AP