Indian farmers intensify protests over new grain bills

By Rajendra Jadhav and Chandini Monnappa

MUMBAI/BENGALURU, (Reuters) - Indian farmers intensified their protests over three new bills that they believe could pave the way for the government to stop buying grain at guaranteed prices, leaving them at the mercy of private buyers such as traders and retailers.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government has defended the legislation - recently approved by India's parliament - as reform measures that will help rid India's vast agriculture sector of antiquated laws.

Modi and some of his ministers have said that the new bills would help remove middlemen from farm trade, allowing farmers to sell to institutional buyers and large retailers like Walmart.

On Thursday, farmers from some of India's big northern heartland states - key producers of wheat and rice - blocked railway tracks, forcing authorities to cancel a few trains on some local routes.

Leading farmers' organisations have chalked out plans for bigger protests on Friday, when opposition parties from across the country are likely to join.

Last week, Harsimrat Kaur Badal, Modi's minister for food processing, resigned over her opposition to the bills that she termed as "anti-farmer".

Badal's regional party, an ally of Modi's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, and India's opposition parties have said that farmers would lose their bargaining power if large private traders and retailers are allowed to buy directly from growers.

Farm Minister Narendra Singh Tomar on Thursday accused opposition parties of misleading farmers and said the government would continue to buy grain from farmers at government-set guaranteed prices.

In the southern state of Karnataka, several farmers' organisations have called for a shutdown on Sept. 28 to protest "anti-farmer" policies of the state and federal governments, said Kodihalli Chandrashekar, president of the Karnataka State Farmers Association.

"If we don't protest now fearing coronavirus, these policies will claim a thousand more farmers' lives than what COVID will," Chandrashekar said.

(Reporting by Rajendra Jadhav and Chandini Monnappa; editing by Mayank Bhardwaj)

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