A month into enormous farmer protests that have rattled his administration, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has held virtual talks with Indian farmers, asking them to explain how the government’s agricultural policies have benefitted them.
Thousands of farmers from several Indian states have been camped on the outskirts of New Delhi for weeks, blocking highways to demand that Modi’s government repeal farm laws passed in September that they say threaten their livelihoods.
But Modi’s virtual public address on Friday was not focused on the laws under contention.
Instead, he spoke via video conferencing to seven farmers from different states, asking them how they had benefitted from “PM Kisan” – a cash transfer scheme his government launched in February 2019, under which farmers get minimum income support.
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 lauded the laws as much-needed reforms that would benefit farmers, as he accused opposition parties of spreading fears among farmers that they will be exploited by corporations.
“Those making big speeches today did nothing for farmers when they were in power,” Modi said.
Modi’s outreach came 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 the repeal of the laws.
Last week, Manoj Yadav, director-general of police in the northern Haryana state, told Al Jazeera at least 25 farmers have died since November 26 when the protests began.
Haryana, along with Punjab, is an epicentre of the rallies.
“Fourteen deaths were due to natural causes, mostly heart attacks and cold,” Yadav said, adding one person died by suicide.
At least 10 people died in separate road accidents as they travelled from Punjab and Delhi states to participate in the protests, the police officer said.
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.
Farmer union leaders have also accused the government of trying to weaken and discredit them by describing protesting farmers as “anti-nationals”.
The laws have heightened existing resentment from farmers, who often complain of being ignored by the government.
— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) December 25, 2020
Often called “annadatta,” or “providers”, Indian farmers have long been seen as the heart and soul of a country where nearly 60 percent 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 percent of the country’s $2.9 trillion economy.