The government advanced talks with protesting farmers who have threatened to block entry points to the capital. The protests over controversial farm laws have entered the sixth day.
The Indian government has invited leaders of farm groups protesting newly enacted agricultural laws near the capital city of New Delhi for talks on Tuesday, two days before they were originally scheduled to take place.
The government, in a statement issued late Monday, announced the meeting was advanced due to the coronavirus pandemic and the extreme cold weather.
The government has already held two rounds of talks with the farmers with the last one held on November 13. "At that time too, we had urged them not to go for agitation and that the government is ready for talks," Agriculture Minister Narendra Tomar said on Monday.
Tomar said that farmers had misconceptions about the farm laws and the government was committed to discussing the issue with their representatives without any preconditions.
This comes after the farmers rejected Home Minister Amit Shah's offer to advance the date of talks in exchange for them moving their protest to a designated site on the outskirts of Delhi.
What’s the current situation?
The farmers' protest, the biggest the country has seen in recent years, intensified over the last five days. Thousands of farmers have marched to the national capital, with many more trickling in, threatening to block five entry points to Delhi.
"Delhi Police has strengthened its presence at various border points in the wake of farmers protest. All internal (Delhi Police) and outside (paramilitary) forces have been mobilized to the maximum," a senior police official was quoted as saying by Indian news website News 18.
Last week, hundreds of farmers clashed with police while trying to enter the capital. The police used tear gas and water cannon to try and stop protesters while the farmers used tractors to try to clear the barriers that police had constructed using concrete blocks, shipping containers, and horizontally parked trucks.
Gajjan Singh, one of the protesters from the northern state of Punjab, died on Monday night near the Delhi border after suffering a heart attack, New Delhi-based NDTV reported. Singh is the second protester to die since the farmers began their march last week. His health had deteriorated due to the cold weather.
What are the protests about?
In September, India's parliament passed three controversial agriculture bills aimed at liberalizing the country's farm sector. They were subsequently signed into law, sparking farmers' protests across the country.
The government argued that the new laws will give freedom to farmers to sell their produce outside regulated markets and enter into contracts with buyers at a pre-agreed price.
The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) insists that the laws will fetch better prices and free farmers from traditional middlemen who dominate the trade. The government hopes that its new policy will double farmers' income by 2022.
Farmers' associations say the legislation does not guarantee the acquisition of farm produce at the minimum support price (MSP), thus leaving them at the mercy of corporations that are now expected to enter the country's troubled farming sector.
"We are fighting for our rights. We won't rest until we reach the capital and force the government to abolish these black laws,'' said Majhinder Singh Dhaliwal, a farmer leader.
Opposition parties and some allies of Prime Minister Narendra Modi have called the laws anti-farmer and pro-corporation and called on the government to accept the farmers' demand to roll back the laws.
Government's response to the protests
The Indian government has so far dismissed the farmers' concerns and accused opposition parties of instigating the protests.
On Monday, Modi said farmers were being misled by the opposition. "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,'' he said at a rally.
"The farmers are being misled on these historic agriculture reform laws by the same people who for decades have misled them," Modi said.
The state of India's farmers
Indian farmers have held huge rallies across the country in the past few years to protest against the government's "neglect" of the agriculture sector amid increasing privatization.
Once accounting for a third of India's gross domestic product (GDP), the farming sector now produces only 15% of the country's $2.9 trillion (€2.4 trillion) economy.
More than half of India's farmers are reportedly in debt, with 20,638 committing suicide in 2018 and 2019, according to India's National Crime Records Bureau.adi, shs/rt (AP, dpa, Reuters)