India begins talks with farmers’ groups as protests simmer

Farmers shout slogans near a police road block at the Delhi-Uttar Pradesh border in Ghazipur on Nov 30, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

NEW DELHI (BLOOMBERG) - The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi started talks with dozens of farm leaders on Tuesday (Dec 1) to end widespread demonstrations that have erupted in protest against the imposition of new agricultural laws.

Tens of thousands of agricultural workers from across the country have been gathering on the outskirts of the capital New Delhi for the last few days, demanding that the Modi administration roll back three new laws that they say will hurt their incomes and make farming in India harder.

The government offered to set up a panel to consider agitating farmers' demands, which was rebuffed by the leaders attending the meeting, the Press Trust of India reported, citing people it didn't identify.

The groups attending the meeting want Modi's administration to scrap the laws, it added.

The new laws seek to remove restrictions on marketing farm products and allow cultivators to engage with private companies to sell their crops, which farmers fear will prompt the government to stop making direct purchases at minimum state-set prices.

The demonstrations pose no immediate risk to Mr Modi's government - he has the numbers needed in Parliament to defend the laws - but could threaten the Prime Minister's long-term popularity as farmers are an influential voting bloc.

"The government is dragging its feet because it feels this is a political agitation rather than issue-based agitation and it is being sponsored by the opposition to embarrass the government," said Ms Arati Jerath, a New Delhi-based author and political analyst.

But for farmers from Punjab and Haryana, it's a "genuine issue" that's forcing them to come to the streets, she added.

Last week, local police used water cannons and tear gas to prevent the marchers from entering the capital.

Various border entry points were covered in concertina wire.

But as the protests refused to simmer down, the government has softened its stand.

Over the weekend, Mr Modi also defended the new laws and said they would bring prosperity to millions of farmers.

About 800 million people in this country of over 1.3 billion depend directly or indirectly on agriculture, which accounts for 16 per cent of its US$2.8 trillion (S$3.75 trillion) economy.

India is the world's top grower of cotton, the second-biggest producer of wheat, rice and sugar, and the largest importer of palm oil.

The tense stand-off comes as Mr Modi's administration is struggling to check the spread of the coronavirus, resolve a tense border standoff with China, ramp up the worst economic growth in years, and generate jobs in the country.

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