New Delhi (CNN)Tens of thousands of farmers have swarmed India's capital where they intend to camp out for weeks to protest new agricultural laws that they say could destroy their livelihoods.
Tens of thousands of farmers swarm India's capital to protest deregulation rules
Farmers from the nearby states of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh began arriving by tractors and on foot at the outskirts of New Delhi last week, where they blocked roads and set up makeshift camps, according to protest leaders. Some slept on the road or in their tractors, and several places of worship offered protesters food.
Police attempted to block demonstrators from entering the city. They fired tear gas and water cannons Thursday and Friday after protesters pelted police officers with stones and damaged public property, according to Manoj Yadav, a senior police official from Haryana.
The farmers are protesting laws passed in September, which Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi says will give farmers more autonomy to set their own prices and sell directly to private businesses, such as supermarket chains.
But the move has infuriated India's farmers, who say that the new rules will leave them worse off by making it easier for corporates to exploit agricultural workers who make up more than half of India's 480 million-strong workforce, according to India's most recent Census in 2011.
According to Ashutosh Mishra, the media coordinator of protest organizer All India Kisan Sangharsh Committee, which represents around 200 farming unions, tens of thousands of demonstrators have gathered at each of New Delhi's three borders -- a line of protesters at one of the borders stretches for 30 kilometers (19 miles), he said.
Police have put up barriers and dug up roads to prevent protesters from coming into the city center to hold sit-ins. Mishra expects more farmers from around the country to join the protests in the coming days.
That's despite New Delhi being a hotspot for Covid-19 in a country that has already reported more than 9.4 million reported cases, the most in any country bar the United States.
"We are trying to be weary of Covid but we don't have an option -- it is a question of life and death," said Mukut Singh, the president of a farmers union in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, who is leading thousands in protest in his home state, and says he will join the protesters in Delhi later this week.
"We are the ones who have provided food, milk, vegetables when the whole country was in lockdown -- we were still toiling in the fields," he said. "It is the government who has put us at risk by introducing these laws during Covid."