Sitting on a chair, 43-year-old Rughvir Singh is busy pouring oil on chapatis (bread) coming out of a machine.
Singh doesn’t remember the exact day, he arrived at the Singhu border between the capital New Delhi and the northern Haryana state, which is now filled with thousands of protesting farmers who are trying to get their voice heard by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and three recently approved agriculture laws rolled back.
But immediately after his arrival at the site from his native district of Shaheed Bhagat Singh Nagar in Punjab, he along with another villager has been offering their services in preparing meals during the day.
“We reached here to join the protests. Since that day I help to prepare the rotis [bread]. This machine can make 2,000-2,500 rotis per hour.” said Singh, while pointing to the machine. “It [machine was recently brought here from Delhi Gurdwara so that we keep the food supply going on.”
As the agitation against the Indian government’s new farm laws enters its fifth week with thousands of farmers camping, it is people like Singh who are voluntarily working continuously to keep the protest going uninterrupted.
Several machines have also been brought from different areas to prepare the meals.
“On the initial day, it was taking time to cook rice and vegetables. It was then decided to bring the boiler here from the Gurdwara,” said Surjit Singh from Gurdaspur district of Punjab, who brought a tall boiler from a Gurdwara, or Sikh place of worship, which runs on wood and at no time prepares meals for at least 10,000 people.
As Singh was helping to prepare meals, a group of people from Moga district in Punjab arrived at the site. In the next hour, in the same vehicle, many people who have already spent days here will return home.
Iqbal Singh from the northern state of Haryana told Anadolu Agency that initially his father was at the protest site.
“He stayed for a week here and then returned home. I’ve been here for over seven days now and will stay for a few more days until my brother arrives,” he said.
This is a similar story for many others as well. Those farmers who travel back to their village send many more from their family to the protest site.
Sonu Kumar, 27, reached the site on the weekend.
“I came in a trolley along with 19 others. Many of those who arrived here had family members here. They went back in the same trolley,” he said. “The idea is to keep the number of protestors the same here, and we will not compromise until laws are repealed.”
Kumar said he sent his 64-year-old father home because of health issues.
“The temperature has dipped here further. He was frequently developing chest pain […] and doctors here advised him to go home,” he said.
Farmer Prince Sandhu from the city of Ludhiana in Punjab said he recently went back to Ludhiana to wash his clothes. As he returned, he brought two washing machines along with him to the protest site.
“Over 200 people come here to wash their clothes. We help the elderly who don’t know how to operate it,” said Sandhu, who first arrived at the site on Nov. 27.
With the temperature going down leading to health problems in the elderly, more NGOs and other groups have set up health camps with doctors available around the clock.
A number of ambulances have also been made available in case of any emergencies.
“We are treating the patients like anyone suffering from a cold, fever, or any other disease […] So far, we have seen 400 patients,” said a staff member from a hospital in the city of Amritsar in Punjab who is now treating patients at the site. “We are here to provide help to the farmers in case of any emergency.”
Kawaljeet Kaur, a nursing student, said she is voluntarily working at the site these days.
“I’ve been attached with a doctor here for the last five days and we help the farmers in case they need any medical help.”
What are farmers protesting over?
In September, the Indian government announced three agricultural reforms which farmers believe will exploit them and threaten the nation’s food security.
The new reforms allow large companies to buy produce from farmers directly. In India, farmers usually sell their produce at local state-registered markets that ensure them a minimum support price which protects them from price shocks in case of a bad crop year.
Farmers believe that in the absence of state regulators, big corporations will exploit them.
The new laws also include the promotion of contract farming that allows farmers to enter into contract farming agreements with buyers at pre-agreed prices of their produce. The new reforms have lifted the ban on the storage of potatoes, onions and pulses. Farmers say the ban used to provide a safeguard against hoarding and profiteering and contract farming will make them vulnerable to exploitation by big companies.
The Indian government is trying to resolve the matter through talks and five rounds of discussions have taken place, but there has been no conclusion yet.