India's Modi says committed to farmers' welfare, protesting leaders to expand campaign

Credit: REUTERS/ANUSHREE FADNAVIS

By Adnan Abidi, Francis Mascarenhas and YP Rajesh

SHAMBHU, India, Feb 22 (Reuters) - Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said on Thursday his government is committed to the welfare of farmers and is on a mission to make them entrepreneurs and exporters, amid a protest by thousands of farmers seeking higher prices for their produce.

Modi's comments on farmers were his first since the protests began last week and come months before general elections in which he is seeking a rare third term.

Farmers, mostly from the northern state of Punjab, have been attempting to march to the capital for more than a week as part of their 'Delhi Chalo' (Let's Go to Delhi) campaign demanding legally binding higher prices for their crops, among other things.

They have been stopped 200 km (125 miles) away by police who have used tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannon, with talks between farmers' leaders and federal ministers failing to produce a breakthrough.

The farmer leaders said on Wednesday they were pausing their march for two days following the death of a young protester, with authorities telling local media that the man had suffered a head injury and the cause was yet to be determined.

After a meeting on Thursday, farmers' leaderssaid they had decided to launch other "mega programmes" across the country starting on Friday.

Friday would be observed as a Black Day and effigies of federal Interior Minister Amit Shah and some state leaders would be burnt across the country, farmers' leader Avik Saha told reporters.

A tractor rally would be held on highways on Feb. 26 and a farm workers' public meeting would be held in Delhi on March 14, he added.

POLITICAL RISK

"Our government is committed to fulfill every resolve related to the welfare of our farmer brothers and sisters across the country," Modi posted on X earlier on Thursday, and referred to a cabinet decision on Wednesday to raise the floor price that mills must pay for sugar cane by 8%.

The move does not benefit the protesting farmers who mostly grow rice and wheat but will help cane farmers in two other states which send the most lawmakers to parliament.

"How to better the life of the small farmer is our focus," Modi later told a public meeting in his home state of Gujarat, without referring to the protests on the border of Punjab and Haryana states.

"We have given modern seeds to farmers...we are giving solar pumps to farmers...our effort is to get small farmers in villages to meet modern technology," Modi said. "Besides making them producers, this is a mission to make small farmers entrepreneurs and exporters."

Although the protesting farmers mostly belong to Punjab state, which has a limited footprint in parliament, analysts say Modi's party cannot risk the campaign spreading to other states and angering more farmers, who are an influential bloc of voters, so close to the polls.

Similar protests two years ago, when farmers camped for months at the border of New Delhi, forced Modi to repeal a set of farm reform laws in what was seen as the biggest political defeat of the strongman leader.

At the main protest site of Shambhu, on the border between Haryana and Punjab states, dozens of farmers milled on and around the highway, sipping tea, cooking and collecting tear gas shells fired on Wednesday, as police kept watch.

Earlier on Thursday, social media platform X said it took down certain accounts and posts following an order by the Indian government, which local media reports say are linked to the farmers protests.

(Additional reporting by Sunil Kataria and Sakshi Dayal; Writing by YP Rajesh)

((yp.rajesh@thomsonreuters.com; X: @YPRajesh))

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

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