Indian government invites protesting farmers for talks on Thursday

A farmer helps another to tie his turban as they get ready to attend a protest against the newly passed farm bills at Singhu border near Delhi, India, November 28, 2020. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India's government on Saturday invited leaders of protesting farmers' unions for talks next week to address concerns about new laws which seek to deregulate the country's large agriculture sector.

Farmers arrived in trucks, buses and tractors on Saturday at Delhi's Singhu border with Haryana state and blocked the main northern highway into the capital. They chanted slogans against Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government and waved the red, yellow and green flags of farmer's unions.

The government has deployed hundreds of police and paramilitary forces in response.

"I appeal to the protesting farmers that the government of India is ready to hold talks regarding your problems. Representatives of farmers have been invited on Dec. 3 for a discussion," Home Minister Amit Shah said in a statement on Saturday.

The offer came a day after clashes ended with an agreement that the farmers could demonstrate in the capital, amid protests over laws that farmers fear could rob them of minimum guaranteed prices for their produce.

Shah appealed to the farmers, who appeared ready for a long sit-in, to hold their protest at an allocated site in north Delhi, where toilet facilities, drinking water and ambulances have been arranged.

He said farmers' unions wanted to hold discussions before Dec. 3. "I want to assure you all that as soon as you shift your protest to structured place, the government will hold talks to address your concerns the very next day".

On Friday, police fired tear gas and water cannons to disperse the protesters before letting them march into the capital.

Both security forces and farmers have installed barricades to prevent a repeat of Friday's clashes.

Harbhajan Singh, 75, from Amritsar in the major northern farming state of Punjab, said he and others were carrying provisions and were prepared to camp out.

"We have been harassed by the government. We want a special parliament session for withdrawal of the new farm laws," Singh said, adding he hopes farmers from other states will join the protests to pressure the government.

Opposition Congress Party leader Rahul Gandhi also slammed the government.

"Our slogan was, 'Hail the Soldier, Hail the Farmer,' but today PM Modi's arrogance made the soldier stand against the farmer. This is very dangerous," Gandhi tweeted in reaction to a photo of a policeman attempting to hit a farmer with a baton.

Modi's laws, enacted in September, let farmers sell their produce anywhere, including to big corporate buyers like Walmart Inc, not just at government-regulated wholesale markets where growers are assured of a minimum procurement price.

But many small growers worry they will be left vulnerable to big business and could eventually lose the price supports for key staples such as wheat and rice.

(Reporting by Danish Siddiqui; Writing by Nidhi Verma; Editing by Euan Rocha, William Mallard and James Drummond)

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