While India battles soaring COVID-19 infections, on the outskirts of New Delhi thousands of farmers are keeping up a monthslong sit-in protest against government legislation that they say harms them.
Underlining the organized nature of the movement as it tries to force Prime Minister Narendra Modi to revoke reforms aimed at making agriculture more efficient, farmers are being ferried to and from villages to harvest this year's wheat crop.
The logistical feat is working, at least from the farmers' point of view. They are on track to gather a record 109 million metric tons this year, posing more headaches for a government that some experts said underestimated the strength of rural anger.
To appease protesters, the state grain purchaser is likely to have to procure large quantities of wheat at guaranteed prices, trade sources said, eating into the budget and bloating already high stock levels.
"The government perhaps believed that the agitation would fizzle out as farmers left for harvesting, but they have come up with a smart strategy," said Devinder Sharma, an independent farm and food policy expert. "I think they are here for the long haul."
A senior official involved in agricultural policymaking said the government has held several rounds of talks with farmers.
"The government is keen to sit with the farmers and address their grievances, but the farmers also need to come with an open mind," said the official, who did not want to be named as he is not authorized to talk to the media.
Protest leader Amreek Singh has no doubt that protests can last as long as is necessary.
One of the farmers on Singh's roster is Rajendra Beniwal, who traveled to Shahjanpur, 65 miles north of Delhi, in mid-April to take part in the harvest. He aims to return to the protests as soon as the job is done.
"I have come along with 23 farmers from my village," said Beniwal, who is 55 and farms a 12-acre plot. "Big wheat harvests have always been challenging logistically, but never has it been so frustrating. At the time of harvests, no one wants to stay away from their fields."