(Reuters) – Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Monday resisted calls for the repeal of farm reforms that have ignited the biggest protests by farmers in years around the national capital, saying they were being misled and that deregulation would benefit them.
Thousands of people from the big farming state of Punjab were camped out on the outskirts of Delhi for a fifth day demanding that they be allowed to stage protests in the city centre against the new laws that open up India’s tightly regulated farm produce market.
Farmers who could earlier sell grains and other products only at neighbouring government-regulated wholesale markets can now sell them across the country, including to big food processing companies and retailers such as WalMart.
But farm groups and opposition parties say the government will eventually abolish the wholesale markets, where growers were assured of a minimum support price for staples like wheat and rice, leaving small farmers at the mercy of corporate agri-businesses.
Speaking at a public rally during a visit to his political constituency of Varanasi in northern India, Modi dismissed the fears as misplaced.
“The new agricultural laws have been brought in for benefit of the farmers. We will see and experience benefits of these new laws in the coming days,” he said. He blamed the opposition for spreading rumours about the future of farmers.
The farm sector contributes nearly 15% of India’s $2.9 trillion economy and employs around half its 1.3 billion people.
The government says the deregulation of the sector will attract investment and fix the supply chains that lose a quarter of India’s produce to wastage.
But Rahul Gandhi, the leader of the main opposition Congress party, said the new laws would benefit big business and accused Modi of crony capitalism.
“Our farmers are standing up against the black laws, they have reached Delhi leaving their farms and families behind. Do you want to stand with them or with Modi’s capitalist friends?” he said in a tweet.