Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Saturday strongly defended three laws enacted by his government to open up agricultural trade that he said would attract investment and technology, open up alternative markets and boost farm incomes, as farmers massed at the borders of Delhi vowed to step up protests against the legislation.
In a speech at the annual meeting of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI), Modi said the farm sector reforms enacted in September were part of government efforts to remove roadblocks impeding agriculture, pledging his commitment to protecting the interest and welfare of farmers.
“Reforms will help draw investment in the agriculture sector and benefit farmers,” the PM said by video link.“The aim of all government reforms is to make farmers prosperous. The new legislation, which was approved in the previous Parliament session, gives farmers an additional option outside of the designated mandis to buy or sell their crops.”
The recent laws allow businesses to freely trade farm produce outside the government-controlled mandi system, permit private traders to stockpile large quantities of essential commodities for future sales and lay down new rules for contract farming. Farmers fear the reforms could pave the way for the government to stop buying staples at federally fixed minimum support prices (MSPs), erode their bargaining power and leave them at the mercy of private buyers.
Modi attempted to allay such concerns, which have brought farmers from Punjab and other parts of northern India to the doorsteps of Delhi, blocking key highways .Farmers’ unions have vowed to expand their protests unless the government scraps the new farm laws. “Farmers have now options to sell their crops in mandis as well as to outside parties,” the prime minister said. “While mandis are being modernised, a digital platform is also available to farmers to buy and sell their produce.”
“All these efforts are directed towards improving the farmers’ income so that they become prosperous. When farmers prosper, the country will prosper,” he added.
“After the implementation of recent reforms, farmers will get new markets and new opportunities and they will get help of technology. The country’s cold storage infrastructure will become modern,” the PM added. “From all these, there will be higher investment in the agriculture sector. The maximum benefit of these reforms would be to small and marginal farmers who earn their living from small holdings of land.”
Modi said economic growth in the 21st century would be supported by villages and small towns and so entrepreneurs should look to invest in these places. “They should not miss the opportunity. The investment made by you will open new avenues for people in the villages. Policies of the government are designed to promote rural, agriculture-based economy.”
Even as Modi held out an olive branch to the farmers, minister for railways, commerce and industry and food and consumer affairs Piyush Goyal alleged that the protests no longer remain a farmers’ movement. He said Leftist and Maoist elements had infiltrated the campaign and were demanding the release of those jailed for anti-national activities. This, he said, was clearly aimed at derailing the agricultural reforms introduced by the government. “We now realise that the so-called farmers’ agitation hardly remains a farmers’ agitation. It has almost got infiltrated by Leftist and Maoist elements, a flavour of which we saw over the last two days when there were extraneous demands to release people who have been put behind bars for anti-national…activities,” Goyal said at the FICCI meeting. “I would urge all well-meaning business leaders and all well-meaning intellectuals who are involved with FICCI, who are on this webcast, to talk about the benefits of these farm laws, to understand the laws. Should you have any apprehension, please talk to us,” Goyal said. Responding to Goyal’s remarks, former Ficci president and vice-chairman of Bharti Enterprises Rajan Bharti Mittal said: “Clearly, you can see when you do the tough reforms like the farm bills, please don’t step back. The industry will back you.”
The opposition Congress on Saturday accused the Modi government of branding every person opposing it a Maoist and an anti-national, and urged the Centre to accept the demands of the protesting farmers.
Congress’ chief spokesperson Randeep Surjewala tweeted: “Mr. Modi, autocracy has no place in democracy. Yours and your ministers’ policy is to declare every opponent a Maoist and an anti-national.”
“Apologise to the farmers who are on a sit-in braving the fierce cold and rains, and accede to their rightful demands immediately,” he said in a tweet in Hindi.
Farmers picketed toll plazas in Haryana, not allowing people manning the booths to collect fees from motorists. More than 100 farmers led by Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) leaders Malkit Singh and Manish Chaudhry gathered at a toll plaza on the Ambala-Hisar highway, around 15 kilometers from Ambala city. In Punjab, toll charges are not being collected from commuters as farmers have been staging sit-ins at toll plazas since October 1. The National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) is suffering a loss of ₹3 crore per day on account of farmers’ protest at toll plazas in the state. There are 25 toll plazas on national highways in Punjab. Meanwhile, Delhi police on Saturday increased deployment of its men and placed more concrete barriers on border points; farmers have announced that they will intensify their protests by blocking the Delhi-Jaipur highway and the Yamuna Expressway. Social activist Yogendra Yadav, who is part of the ongoing protests, said farmers from areas in Rajasthan and Haryana were assembling on Saturday and their “Delhi Chalo” march would begin on Sunday. “Farmers’ ‘Delhi march’ on Jaipur-Delhi highway will not start today and it will begin from Shahjahanpur border tomorrow. Today, farmers from Rajasthan and Haryana will congregate in Kotputli and Behror,” Yadav tweeted.
(PTI contributed to this story)