Indian government offers more talks with protesting farmers

NEW DELHI (AP) — India’s government on Thursday offered to meet again with leaders of tens of thousands of farmers who have been blockading key highways for two weeks, but rejected their demand for the repeal of three laws on agricultural reform.

Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar told reporters that the government is willing to amend the new laws to allay the farmers’ concerns, and they “should give up their insistence on scrapping” them.

There was no immediate response from the protest leaders. Five round of talks since November have failed to produce a breakthrough, with the farmers insisting on their demand that the laws be repealed.

The farmers say the laws, passed in September, will deregulate crop prices and devastate their earnings. They fear the government will stop buying grain at minimum guaranteed prices and corporations will then push prices down. The government says it is willing to pledge that guaranteed prices will continue.

The protest leaders announced on Wednesday that farmers will block another highway on Saturday and organize a nationwide shutdown of businesses next Monday unless their demands are met.

With nearly 60% of the Indian population depending on agriculture for their livelihoods, the growing farmer rebellion has rattled Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration and its allies.

Heavy contingents of police in riot gear patrolled the areas where the farmers have been camping in New Delhi’s outskirts.

Modi’s government insists the reforms will benefit farmers. It says they will allow farmers to market their produce and boost production through private investment.

Farmers have been protesting the laws for nearly two months in Punjab and Haryana states. The situation escalated two weeks ago when tens of thousands marched to New Delhi, where they clashed with police.

The laws add to already existing resentment from farmers, who often complain of being ignored by the government in requests for better crop prices, additional loan waivers and irrigation systems to guarantee water during dry spells.

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