NEW DELHI (AP) – India’s government invited leaders of farmers for talks as thousands of them pressed on with a protest in and around the capital on Saturday against agricultural legislation they said could be exploited by the private sector to buy their crops at cheap prices.
After a day of clashes with police who used tear gas, water cannons and baton charges to push them back, the farmers were allowed to enter New Delhi late Friday.
Television images showed some of them moving to the capital while thousands still remained at the outskirts of the city.
Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar invited them for talks.
“We have called all the farmers’ organizations on December 3 and we have talked before and are still ready for talks,” Tomar said.
There was no immediate response from the farmers’ leaders. The protesters said they would not return to their homes until their demands were met.
For the last two months, farmer unions have rejected the laws, which were passed in September, and have camped out on highways in Punjab and Haryana states. They say the measure could cause the government to stop buying grain at guaranteed prices and result in their exploitation by corporations that would buy their crops cheaply.
The government says the laws are needed to reform agriculture by giving farmers the freedom to market their produce and boosting production through private investment.
“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 Modi allies have called the laws anti-farmer and pro-corporation.
Farmers have long been seen as the heart and soul of India, where agriculture supports more than half of the country’s 1.3 billion people. But farmers have also seen their economic clout diminish over the last three decades. Once accounting for a third of India’s gross domestic product, they now produce only 15% of the country’s $2.9 trillion economy.
Farmers often complain of being ignored and hold frequent protests to demand better crop prices, more loan waivers and irrigation systems to guarantee water during dry spells.
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