Police fire tear gas at protesting Indian farmers, government offers talks


  • World
  • Wednesday, 21 Feb 2024

Farmers are seen at the frontline of the protest site as they march towards New Delhi to press for better crop prices promised to them in 2021, at Shambhu barrier, a border crossing between Punjab and Haryana states, India, February 21, 2024. REUTERS/Francis Mascarenhas

SHAMBHU, India (Reuters) -Indian police fired tear gas and water cannons on Wednesday to scatter thousands of farmers trying to stage a protest march to Delhi after they rejected a government offer on prices for their produce, prompting an offer of fresh talks.

The farmers, mostly from the northern state of Punjab, have been demanding higher prices backed by law for their crops. They form an influential bloc of voters Prime Minister Narendra Modi cannot afford to anger ahead of general elections due by May.

Fleeing the tear gas and clouds of smoke, the farmers, some wearing medical masks, ran into fields surrounding their gathering-point on a highway about 200 km (125 miles) north of the capital New Delhi.

When they tried to regroup, police fired more tear gas shells at them.

At another protest site about 100 km away, video clips on local media showed police using water cannons and farmers aiming a hose pipe of water at them.

The police action came as Modi's government made a new offer to resume talks on farmers' demand for guaranteed crop prices.

"The government is ready to discuss all the issues," Agriculture Minister Arjun Munda posted on social network X.

"I again invite the farmer leaders for discussion. It is important for us to maintain peace."

Farmers' leader Sarwan Singh Pandher told reporters they would discuss how to respond.

On Monday, the farmers' groups had rejected the government's previous proposal for five-year contracts and guaranteed support prices for produce such as corn, cotton and pulses.

HIGHWAYS BLOCKED

The farmers, accompanied by cranes and excavators, began marching at 0530 GMT from a spot on a key highway where authorities had erected barricades on the border of Punjab state with Haryana.

"It is not right that such massive barricades have been placed to stop us," said one of the farmers' leaders, Jagjit Singh Dallewal. "We want to march to Delhi peacefully. If not, they should accede to our demands."

Police in riot gear lined the highway as the farmers waved colourful flags emblazoned with the symbols of their unions.

Late on Tuesday, Haryana police's chief ordered the immediate seizure of heavy equipment brought by the farmers, to keep protesters from using it to destroy barricades.

About 10,000 people had gathered on Wednesday, along with 1,200 tractors and wagons at Shambhu on the state border, police in Haryana posted on X.

Security was stepped up at entry points to New Delhi, slowing traffic entering the city of more than 20 million and causing snarls. Two key entry points north of the city have been shut for days and traffic diverted.

An earlier government proposal of minimum support prices to farmers who diversify their crops to grow cotton, pigeon peas, black matpe, red lentils and corn was rejected by the protesters, who wanted additional foodgrains covered.

Similar protests two years ago, when farmers camped for months at the border of New Delhi, forced Modi's government to repeal a set of farm laws.

(Additional reporting by Sakshi Dayal in New Delhi; Writing by Shilpa Jamkhandikar and YP Rajesh; Editing by Clarence Fernandez, Alexandra Hudson)

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