NEW DELHI (AP) — India’s government has moved up talks to Dec. 1 with the leaders of farm groups protesting new agricultural laws in the country’s biggest farmer protests in years that have entered their fifth day.
Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar said on Monday he decided to advance the meeting originally planned for Dec. 3. due to the coronavirus pandemic and cold weather.
There was no immediate response from the farm groups protesting new laws that they say will lead the government to stop buying grain at minimum guaranteed prices and result in the agricultural sector’s exploitation by corporations who will further push down prices.
Last week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government tried to placate farmers, thousands of whom have blocked highways and hunkered down on the outskirts of New Delhi by inviting them for talks.
Earlier Monday, Modi said farmers were being misled by opposition parties and that his government would address their concerns.
“The new agricultural laws have been brought in for benefit of the farmers. Reforms are being done in the interest of farmers, which will give them more options,” Modi said at a rally in his political constituency of Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh state.
His government says the legislation brings about necessary reform that will allow farmers to market their produce and boost production through private investment.
During the rally, Modi dismissed the concerns raised by farmers and blamed opposition parties for spreading rumors.
“The farmers are being misled on these historic agriculture reform laws by the same people who for decades have misled them,” Modi said, referencing opposition parties who have called the laws anti-farmer and corporate. “Our intentions are as holy as the water of river Ganga.”
Rahul Gandhi, the leader of the main opposition Congress party, accused Modi of crony capitalism and said the laws would benefit corporations.
“Our farmers are standing up against the black laws and have reached Delhi leaving their farms and families behind. Do you want to stand with them or with Modi’s capitalist friends?” Gandhi said in a tweet.
The protests have lasted nearly two months in Punjab and Haryana states but on Thursday gained national attention when thousands of farmers clashed with police who used tear gas, water cannons and baton charges against them as they tried to enter India’s capital.
Home Minister Amit Shah pressed for talks on Saturday but said that farmers would have to move their protests to a government-designated venue in New Delhi and stop blocking highways. The farmers rejected the offer and said they would continue camping out on highways until the laws are withdrawn.
Modi’s ministers are scrambling to find ways to assuage their anger. Farmers make up an influential voting bloc across India and particularly in states such as Punjab and Haryana.
On Monday, Shah met Singh Tomar for the second time in less than 24 hours after farm organizations rejected the government’s conditional invitation for talks.
Many farmers are prepared for a long haul and have brought food and bedding in their tractors and trucks and say they will continue their protests.
“The government has become a slave of the corporates. They want to turn us into their slaves as well,” said farmer Sukhwinder Singh Sabhra.
Farmers have long been seen as the heart and soul of India, where agriculture supports more than half of the country’s 1.3 billion people. But farmers have also seen their economic standing diminish over the last three decades. Once accounting for a third of India’s gross domestic product, they now produce only 15% of GDP, which is valued at $2.9 trillion a year.
Farmers often complain of being ignored and hold frequent protests to demand better crop prices, additional loan waivers and irrigation systems to guarantee water during dry spells.
Associated Press journalist Rishi Lekhi contributed to this report.