When thousands of farmers began sit-ins on Delhi’s borders against the contentious 2020 farm laws in November that year, they announced that they would sustain their agitation for six months if need be. In subsequent months, the sit-ins received massive global support, faced a government that refused to withdraw the laws and continued for over six months, even through the brutal second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. In end May this year, thousands of farmers were still camped in makeshift homes at the most prominent sit-ins, in Singhu and Tikri. Built with iron frames, bamboos, tarpaulin sheets and green garden-shade nets, these makeshift homes form settlements that span several kilometres. “We have settled here with the resolve to continue our fight till these laws are repealed,” Surjit Kaur, a protester at Tikri, told me.
In the second half of May, I visited the sit-ins thrice and saw that none of the protesters had any plans of leaving. Many volunteers were carrying equipment to build new shelters. Several people were also rebuilding their makeshift homes as they had been damaged by torrential rain that hit the sit-ins for three nights in a row in the third week of May.
Lakhbir Singh, a native of Haryana’s Jind district, was among them. “Today, it has been five months and 20 days since I came here,” he told me on 24 May. Lakhbir said he only visited his home, in Datta Singh Wala village, for one day due to an urgent family matter. “I told my family back home to garland my photo,” he said, referring to a ritual carried out for dead people. “And I would remove the garland myself once I return after victory, but I won’t return empty hand.” The next day, I saw that he had successfully reconstructed his makeshift home with iron, bamboo, tarp and green net.
While many people like Lakhbir almost never returned home, several protesters from Punjab said that their villages had a rotation system to send people to the sit-ins. One of them was Milkha Singh from Muktsar district, who was also supervising welding work to fix his damaged makeshift home at Tikri. Milkha told me a committee in his village chalks out the schedule for their visit. “This is my fourth round here and I am scheduled to stay here for a month, then another group will arrive,” he said. Kaur, a middle-aged woman from Kishangarh village in Punjab’s Mansa district, said her village had a similar system. “We take turns in the village to come and stay here for a good number of days.” Kaur was on her sixth visit to Tikri in a fortnight when we met on 22 May. When asked if the protesters were tired, she replied, “Thakkan layi te assi jamiya nahi, kisan”—Farmers are not born to get tired.
Kaur told me that when she and her fellow villagers first visited the sit-in in November 2020, they would sleep in their trolleys. But for two months now they have been sleeping in sheds of bamboo and tarpaulin. “We are camped here, even if it takes two or three years,” she said. She was making kheer and sitting among a group of six women, all of whom agreed with the statement. “It is a question of our children’s bread and butter. And sitting here in misery is as good as sitting at home,” Kaur told me. When asked if she was scared of COVID-19, she said, “COVID or no COVID, the onus is on the government.”
The COVID-19 pandemic was hardly discussed at the sit-ins. Balbir Singh, a doctor who was camped at Singhu, told me that prevention norms were being followed and masks were being distributed. “Farmers are aware and most of them arriving here from Punjab are now vaccinated,” he added. Balbir told me doctors volunteering at the Singhu have set up a ten-bed makeshift hospital called “Kisan Ekta,” which has oxygen cylinders and concentrators. He said specialist doctors take turns to stay at the hospital. However, Balbir added, the government had provided no assistance to deal with COVID-19 at the sit-in.