Modi makes outreach effort to placate angry Indian farmers

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Indian farmers shout slogans as they block a major highway during a protest against new farm laws at the Delhi-Uttar Pradesh state border, India, on Dec. 5, 2020. Indias prime minister Narendra Modi Friday held virtual talks with farmers from six states and asked them to explain how the governments agricultural policies have benefited them, a month after facing massive farmer protests that have rattled his administration. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)

NEW DELHI – Prime Minister Narendra Modi held virtual talks with Indian farmers Friday and asked them to explain how the government’s agricultural policies have benefited them, a month into massive farmer protests that have rattled his administration.

Modi’s talks with supporters of the legislation come while his government is making multiple efforts to placate tens of thousands of farmers who are blocking key highways on the outskirts of the capital in protests against new agricultural laws. The protesting farmers say the laws will dismantle regulated markets, favor big corporations, and make family-owned farms unviable, eventually leaving them landless.

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Protesting farmers fear the government will stop buying grain at minimum guaranteed prices and corporations will then push down prices. The government says the three laws approved by Parliament in September will enable farmers to market their produce and boost production through private investment.

“Through these agricultural reforms, we have given better options to the farmers,” Modi said in his live address. He reiterated that the laws were a much-needed reform that would benefit farmers and accused opposition parties of spreading fears of farmers’ exploitation by corporations.

“Those making big speeches today did nothing for farmers when they were in power,” Modi said.

The farmers present during Modi's talks were from six states but not from Punjab and Haryana, two of India’s largest agricultural states whose farmers were the first to rise up against his government and have now hunkered down outside capital in their trucks, trailers and tractors.

Modi’s outreach comes a day after India’s main opposition party called for a special parliamentary session to withdraw the new laws.

“The prime minister wants to help two, three business people” by introducing the farm laws, said Rahul Gandhi, a senior leader from the opposition Congress party, on Thursday.

He led a party delegation to President Ram Nath Kovind, seeking his intervention for repeal of the laws.

Six rounds of talks between government officials and farmer union leaders have failed to resolve the deadlock.

On Thursday, the government again invited protesting farmers to further talks.

Modi’s government has said it is willing to pledge that guaranteed prices will continue but protest leaders have rejected the government’s offer to amend some contentious provisions of the laws.

Farmers union leaders have also accused the government of trying to weaken and discredit them by describing protesting farmers as “anti-nationals."

The laws have exacerbated existing resentment from farmers, who often complain of being ignored by the government.

India’s fabled farmers, often called “annadatta,” or “providers,” have long been seen as the heart and soul of a country where nearly 60% of the population depends on agriculture for their livelihoods.

But farmers' economic clout has diminished over the last three decades. Once accounting for a third of India’s gross domestic product, they now account for only 15% of the country’s $2.9 trillion economy.

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