Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has assured farmers that reforms in the agrarian sector were aimed at helping them, as thousands of farmers continue their protests against three new laws to overhaul the procurement and sale of produce.
“Reforms will help draw investment in agriculture and benefit farmers, ” Modi said at the annual meeting of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry in New Delhi on Saturday.
“The aim of all the government reforms is to make farmers prosperous,” he said, adding that the private sector must help improve the country’s agriculture sector.
But protesting farmers fear the new legislation will eventually dismantle India’s regulated markets and stop the government from buying wheat and rice at guaranteed prices, leaving them at the mercy of private buyers.
At least 30 farmer unions are actively protesting against the new laws. The unions say the new laws were introduced without consultation and they fear losing earnings and protection over guaranteed prices.
Talks between leaders of the farmers’ unions and government officials have failed to break the deadlock, with the farmers demanding a complete rollback of the new laws.
Despite Modi’s latest assurances, thousands of farmers are trying to enter New Delhi from neighbouring states to press for the repeal of the new legislation.
“We plan to protest peacefully,” said Balbir Singh Rajewal, president of the Bharatiya Kisan Union (Indian Farmers’ Union).
“The government must accept our demands if they want us to stop our protest.”
At the same event, Trade Minister Piyush Goyal said the government was committed to doubling farmers’ income and the ongoing “farmer agitation was infiltrated by the leftists and Maoists”.
India’s farming provides a livelihood to nearly 70 percent of the country’s 1.3 billion people and accounts for around 15 percent of the $2.7-trillion economy.
The “Green Revolution” from the 1960s turned India from a country facing regular food shortages into one with a surplus – and a major exporter.
India hands out an estimated $32bn in subsidies to farmers annually, according to the finance ministry.
But for the past few decades, farm incomes have remained largely stagnant and the sector is in sore need of investment and modernisation.
More than 85 percent of farmers have less than two hectares (five acres) of land.
Fewer than one in 100 farmers own more than 10 hectares, according to a 2015-16 agriculture ministry survey.