Indian farmers vow to carry on months-long protest despite concerns over coronavirus

FILE PHOTO: Farmers participate in a tractor rally to protest against the newly passed farm bills, on a highway on the outskirts of New Delhi, India, January 7, 2021. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi/File Photo

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Thousands of Indian farmers, protesting over three new agricultural laws that they say threaten their livelihoods, have vowed to continue with their around-the-clock sit-ins despite a sharp rise in coronavirus cases in the country.

Farmers from Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh states in the north and the desert state of Rajasthan have camped on major national highways for more than four months, demanding a repeal of the laws even as coronavirus infections hit record levels.

India has emerged as the world's worst-hit country since early April, overwhelming its stretched healthcare facilities. Experts have blamed lax measures to enforce curbs on movement and large gatherings in the country of 1.39 billion people.

The government would increasingly try to use the pandemic as a ruse to break the protest, but the farmers would not leave their protest sites, Rakesh Tikait, a prominent leader of one of the largest farmers' unions, told Reuters.

"We have religiously followed coronavirus guidelines, and we have drawn up plans to stay put until at least November and December, or even beyond that if the government doesn't listen to us by then," he said.

Agriculture & Farmers Welfare Minister Narendra Singh Tomar has requested protesting farmer union leaders to call off their agitation to stave off any major outbreak of coronavirus cases at three main protest sites near Delhi.

"If the government is keen to ensure that the agitation ends, it should concede our demands. That will be a sure-shot way to end the protest," said Dharmendra Malik, a farm leader from Uttar Pradesh.

Ramandeep Singh Mann, another prominent farmers' leader from Punjab, said: "The ruling party marshalled large crowds at its political rallies during recent state assembly elections, and it should practise what it preaches."

Farmer union leaders, including Tikait, Malik and Mann, said there were no reports of coronavirus infections at the protest sites.

(Reporting by Mayank Bhardwaj; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

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