India urges farmers to call off mass protest due to Covid ‘super-spreader’ risk


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Over a third of that total toll have died over the past three weeks during a devastating second wave fueled by a new virus variant detected in India, mass political and religious gatherings, and lowering of the guard by the public, health officials and experts say.
Throughout the pandemic, farmers around the country have continued protesting against a series of agricultural laws passed last September, which they say will devastate their livelihoods. The government says the reforms are needed to modernize the country’s farming industry.
Since last fall, tens of thousands of farmers have been living in tents at sprawling camps outside the capital New Delhi. The protests died down somewhat during the second wave, which coincided with harvest season, prompting many to return home and tend to their crops.

But harvest season has come to a close — and farmers are planning mass protests across the country on Wednesday to mark six months of their campaign.

The farmers camping out on Delhi’s outskirts are protesting despite great risk of infection to themselves, the joint committee of farmers organizations said in a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, urging him to repeal laws to liberalize the farm sector.

“We have no desire to expose the protesting farmers or anyone else to avoidable health hazards,” the letter said.

But challenging laws that would make farmer livelihoods vulnerable to corporate agribusinesses is itself a life and death matter, it said.

Twelve opposition parties including Congress issued a statement saying they stood by the farmers.

Agriculture is the primary source of livelihood for about 58% of India’s 1.3 billion residents, and farmers are the biggest voter bloc in the country, making farming a central political issue.

But government officials have voiced fears that a mass rally on the edges of the capital could become a “super-spreader” incident — like the crowded political rallies that were held in numerous states before local elections earlier this year, or the Kumbh Mela festival by the banks of the River Ganges last month when millions of Hindus congregated.
Farmers protest against the central government's agricultural reforms in Amritsar, India, on April 18.

“Please don’t act irresponsibly, this kind of protest is totally unacceptable when the lives of people are at stake,” said Amarinder Singh, chief minister of Punjab state where the farmer demonstrations originated, in a statement.

India reported 222,315 new Covid-19 cases on Monday, according to its health ministry. That’s significantly lower than the peak of the second wave, which surpassed 400,000 daily cases earlier this month — but it’s still the world’s highest daily figure.

The South Asian country has recorded a total of 26.75 million Covid-19 infections, second only to the United States.

India also reported 4,454 additional related deaths on Monday, bringing the death toll to 303,720.

Health experts say the true number of fatalities could be several times higher as many are not being reported as Covid-19 deaths. Scores of bodies have washed up in the Ganges or have been found in shallow graves by the riverbank in recent weeks.

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