Farmers dismantle their shelters at Delhi borders

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Tens of thousands of farmers began wrapping up tents and other makeshift structures at three protest sites on the national capital’s borders on Saturday as they headed home after yearlong protests against three contentious farm laws that have now been scrapped by the Centre.

Farmers took out a victory march, sang, danced and organised feasts as they started dismantling tents used for the protests, with some of them saying that the entire process to vacate the three areas – Singhu, Tikri and Ghazipur – could take up to three days.

After morning prayers and a victory march led by horse-mounted Nihangs, the farmers camped at the Singhu border started retreating from the protest site on tractor-trolleys decorated with flowers amid blaring music. While Nihangs displayed martial art skills and a decorated bus carried the Guru Granth Sahib in front of the procession, several onlookers threw flower petals in their path.

A compromise between the Centre and protesting farm unions came after two days of back-channel negotiations that saw proposals being sent back and forth, and 11 rounds of tenuous negotiations that hit a deadlock on January 22. Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced on November 19 that his government was repealing the contentious laws and Parliament scrapped them on November 29.

At the Ghazipur border, another protest site of the farmers, the first group of farmers left on Saturday afternoon for different areas in Uttarakhand and western Uttar Pradesh. Bharatiya Kisan Union leader Rakesh Tikait said that the process to vacate the area will take up to three days. “I will leave the site by December 15,” he said.

To be sure, the three border roads where the farmers held sit-in protests are yet to open for vehicular movement. Even after most farmers vacate the streets by Sunday night or Monday, police teams from Delhi, UP, Haryana and other agencies will take some time to clear the roads. The National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) will then inspect the roads before giving a nod to open them for vehicular movement after over a year, an official aware of the developments said.

Special commissioner of police (law and order) Dependra Pathak said: “We have started the process of removing the barricades and blockades that were placed on the Delhi side. The concerned stakeholders have been intimated about the developments and asked to take necessary steps to open the three borders. We are trying to open the borders and resume traffic on the roads as early as possible.”

Barring the deserted section of the main Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM) protest stage, over 70% area along the Delhi-Jaipur highway was cleared by late afternoon at the Singhu border. With larger metallic iron frames yet to be dismantled, repairs needed on the carriageways and the concrete embankments made by the authorities in Delhi still in place, it will take a few more days for normal traffic to resume in the area, people aware of the matter said.

The farmers from Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and parts of Rajasthan have been camping at the three key border points at Singhu, Tikri and Ghazipur since November 26 last year to protest the now-scrapped farm laws. SKM member and farmer leader Balbir Singh Rajewal said the farmers won the fight and the central government forced to bow down. He also paid tributes to more than 700 farmers who died during the stir.

Besides distributing sweets and taking selfies at the three sites, many farmers were seen donating some of their belongings to people in the area. Before departing in triumphant convoys, the farmers said that they were going with bittersweet memories. Iqbal Singh (63) and Labh SIngh (70) from Fatehpur Sahib in Punjab were seen clearing their tent. “We are helping clean the place before leaving. Singhu has been like a home to us and this place has given us many good experiences… Morcha fateh (victory) has been declared and we will head back to our fields. Farmers don’t rest,” Iqbal Singh said.

While many farmers began returning to their homes when the final agreement was reached between the Centre and SKM two days back, the dismantling of makeshift tents and shelters along the Delhi-Chandigarh highway gathered pace on Saturday. Youngsters from villages in the area and locally hired labourers used jackhammers and cutting tools to wrap up the structures. In case of larger langar halls with metallic frames, cranes and excavators were being used to remove the structures.

“There are ration stocks, cots, firewood and other relief material. It was a community effort to sustain the protest and community members are helping take everything back. We will clear the site by tomorrow (Sunday),” Dalip Singh from Huzoor Sahib gurdwara in Nanded said. He added that three trucks and two cranes have been brought to pack up the material gathered over the last year.

Around 30km away, the Tikri border protest site witnessed a similar flurry of activity. Emotions ran high, as farmers hugged and congratulated each other on the success of their struggle, and promised to stay in touch with each other as they headed back to their villages. Gopal Krishna, 60, sat atop a truck with two others as he oversaw the dismantling of their makeshift home. Residents of Hamidi village in Punjab’s Barnala district, the lot was waiting to return by Saturday evening.

“Back home, people are waiting for us. As soon as we all reach home, we will mark our victory and thank the people back home who supported us during the movement,” said Parminder Singh Pradhan, a farmer from Punjab’s Sri Muktsar Sahib.

At Ghazipur, BKU national spokesperson Rakesh Tikait said: “This was our ‘training ground’ where we learnt how to face different situations and how to carry on long protests while tackling all weather conditions. The people who are part of this agitation will now go to different parts of the country and teach others how to deal with such situations.”

Tikait shot into the limelight after his emotional appeal from the dais of the protest site on January 28 earlier this year. Farmer leaders said that the dais at the site will be dismantled and Saturday evening was the last time when speeches, including that by Tikait, were made from the dais erected on National Highway 9.

Gyanendra Kumar Singh, superintendent of police (rural), said: “Some farmers went home on Saturday while others in large number of groups will start moving to their homes on Sunday morning. The gathering swelled on Saturday as people came to meet farmers before they go home and families of many farmers also arrived to take them home.”

Emotions ran high as the farmers performed prayers to thank the almighty and started their “victory march” from Singhu, Tikri and Ghazipur protest sites to Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh in convoys of tractors, bedecked with colourful flowers and lights and blaring songs of jubilation.

By Saturday evening, most farmers cleared the Singhu border protest site spread over 5-6km, leaving behind some tents.

People gathered at many places on the Delhi-Karnal-Ambala and Delhi-Hisar national highways as well as other routes welcomed and honouring the farmers with garlands and sweets.

An aircraft also showered flower petals on farmers at Shambhu border (Punjab-Haryana border).

Because of the large convoy of tractor trolleys and other vehicles, traffic jams could be seen at many places on Delhi-Haryana national highway and other roads.

Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal took to Twitter to praise the farmers for their effort. “There is no substitute for patience, courage and unity. Only by mutual brotherhood and unity, the country move forward. This unity of farmer brothers was their biggest strength. My salute to the strong will and vitality of the farmer brothers who are returning home from today with a historic victory,” he said.

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