Tens of thousands of farmers are protesting against new laws they say will threaten their livelihoods, but the prime minister remains on the defensive.
A month after huge farmer protests rocked his administration, Prime Minister Narendra Modi held virtual talks with Indian farmers, asking them to explain how the government’s agricultural policies have been beneficial to them.
Thousands of farmers from several Indian states camped on the outskirts of New Delhi for weeks, blocking highways to demand that Modi’s government repeal agricultural laws passed in September that they say threaten their livelihoods.
But Modi’s virtual public speech on Friday did not focus on the contested laws.
Instead, he spoke via video conference with seven farmers from different states, asking them how they had benefited from “PM Kisan” – a cash transfer program that his government launched in February 2019, under which farmers receive minimum income support.
The government says the three laws approved by parliament in September will allow farmers to market their products and boost production through private investment.
“Through these agricultural reforms, we have given better options to farmers,” Modi said in his live speech.
He hailed the laws as much-needed reforms that would benefit farmers, as he accused opposition parties of spreading fear among farmers that they would be exploited by companies.
“Those who gave big speeches today did nothing for the 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 businessmen” by introducing agricultural laws, said Rahul Gandhi, a senior opposition party leader in Congress, on Thursday.
He led a party delegation to President Ram Nath Kovind, calling for his intervention for the repeal of the laws.
Last week, Manoj Yadav, director general of police in northern Haryana state, told Al Jazeera that at least 25 farmers had died since November 26, when the protests began.
Haryana, along with the Punjab, is an epicenter of gatherings.
“Fourteen deaths were due to natural causes, mainly heart attacks and the common cold,” Yadav said, adding that one person died by suicide.
At least 10 people have died in separate road crashes while traveling from the states of Punjab and Delhi to participate in the protests, the police officer said.
Six rounds of talks between government officials and farmer union leaders failed to break the deadlock.
On Thursday, the government again called on protesting farmers to continue talks.
Leaders of the farmers’ unions also accused the government of trying to weaken and discredit them by describing the protesting farmers as “anti-national”.
The laws have increased the existing resentment of farmers, who often complain of being ignored by the government.
– Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) December 25, 2020
Often referred to as “annadatta” or “suppliers,” Indian farmers have long been considered the heart and soul of a country where nearly 60 percent of the population depends on agriculture for their livelihood.
But the economic influence of farmers has waned over the past three decades. Once accounting for a third of India’s gross domestic product, they now account for just 15% of the country’s $ 2.9 trillion economy.