Tractors, Twitter: India’s huge farm protests

Barricades, barbed wire and ground spikes were used to fortify India’s capital against tens of thousands of farmers, who have been protesting agricultural reforms for months.

They arguably pose Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s biggest challenge, since he came to power in 2014.

The farmers have grabbed attention around the world and high-profile supporters in the West - from Greta Thunberg to Rihanna.

Mayank Bhardwaj has been covering the story from New Delhi.

"It's perhaps the biggest protest in decades. They have been camping out on all the important major highways coming to Delhi for more than 70 days now. And the reinforcement of the facilities there, the community kitchen there, that's just pretty amazing. The logistics and the cohesion."

India’s agricultural sector employs about half of its population, but accounts for only about 15% of the country’s $2.9 trillion economy.

In September, the parliament passed controversial new farm bills, changing long-standing rules that govern the vast sector.

Rallies eventually made their way to the capital, where protest camps sprouted on the outskirts.

The campaign was largely peaceful until January 26th.

Protesters drove a procession of tractors into the heart of New Delhi on India’s Republic Day, some of them storming the historic Red Fort.

Police met protesters with tear gas and batons.

By the end of the day - one person was left dead, and hundreds were injured.

Farm leaders condemned the violence but a tense stand-off ensued in the following days.

On January 30th, as some protesters began hunger-striking, India blocked mobile internet services in several areas around New Delhi - prompting international criticism.

To know why the unrest is occurring, requires an understanding of India’s agricultural sector.

"So there are a few demands. But the most important one is about a law which allows private buyers, private retailers or traders or wholesalers to directly buy from the farmers - you know, at their farm, at their doorstep. And that basically changes an age old law which required farmers to bring all their produce to government controlled, regulated wholesale market."

"So farmers believe that this law will weaken these wholesale markets, make them irrelevant, and initially private buyers will offer them good prices. But as these wholesale markets will vanish and as these middlemen will vanish, private companies will start dictating prices and as a result, farmers will have no bargaining power. And anyway, in India, more than 80 percent farmers are small growers. They have only two hectares of land. So they say anyway, we do not have the clout to deal with private buyers."

The government, however, says the reforms will bring much-needed investment.

"Other than farmers, some economists believe that it was not needed because there is a system which has sold well. So why try to fix something which is not broken? So economists are divided. Some some some believe that it will help Indian agriculture in the long term."

There have been several rounds of talks between the government and union leaders but no sign of a break in the deadlock.

The government has offered some concessions, but has ruled out abandoning the reforms.

Modi retains a solid majority in parliament, although the protests are beginning to undermine rural support for the government.

"No doubt he remains the most popular politician even today. But to begin with, when when this quarter started, it was largely confined to the breadbasket states of Punjab and Haryana. But we have seen in the past few weeks it has spread to other parts of the country [...] So now it threatens to, you know, to dent his popularity in the villages at least."

Protesters say they're going to scale up their efforts and they won’t back down until the bills are repealed.