The Indian government has reached out again to the tens of thousands of protesting farmers who have been parked at the borders of capital New Delhi for almost a month, braving a chilly winter to demand the repeal of three controversial farm laws.

In a letter to the farmers’ unions spearheading the protest, the agriculture ministry’s top official on Thursday said the government was committed to reaching a “logical solution” to the issues they have raised and invited them for further discussions “at a date and time of your choosing”, according to Indian media reports.

“I would once again like to stress that the government has spoken to you with open mind on the issues raised by you and is ready to do so in future as well. Please let us know the date and time, as convenient to you, for the next round,” said the letter.

Three new farm laws were passed with little debate in September amid an opposition boycott in the parliament where India’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has a majority.

A farmer smokes a hookah, a traditional water pipe, at the site of a protest against new farm laws, at the Delhi-Uttar Pradesh border in Ghaziabad [Adnan Abidi/Reuters]

The government says the laws will modernise farming and increase the incomes of farmers.

But the farmers fear they aim to ease regulations around storage and marketing of crops will benefit big corporations and leave them at the mercy of the free market.

Farmer unions’ leaders say the laws would lead to the end of state-regulated buying of crops and a system of government-set minimum prices for their produce.

Several rounds of talks between leaders of the farmers’ group and the government have failed to break the deadlock.

The government has offered to amend the laws and said the regulated purchase and support prices of crops would stay but the protesters, largely from Punjab and Haryana, insist that the laws be repealed.

“We don’t believe in the government’s assurances, we want concrete proposals, not meaningless amendments … these laws are a death warrant for farmers,” union leader Darshan Pal said.

Farmers groups were open to further talks with the government, which must show that it had an open mind and good intentions, Pal said.

A man dressed as Santa Claus stands amid farmers and members of various agricultural organisations during a protest in Mumbai [Francis Mascarenhas/Reuters]

Farmer unions’ leaders have also accused the government of trying to weaken and discredit them by describing protesting farmers as “anti-nationals”.

“You are dealing with protesting farmers in a manner as if they are not aggrieved citizens but political rivals,” Samyukta Kisan Morcha, or United Farmers’ Front, a coalition of farmers unions, said in a letter addressed to the ministry on Thursday.

“Farmers would be compelled to intensify their agitation further for their survival if the government continued to treat them in this manner,” the letter said.

The protesters said they were prepared for the long haul and new groups were coming in while some returned home, said Ashutosh Mishra, spokesman for a forum of farmer unions.

The farmers are parked near at least five border points on main roads leading into New Delhi which are now partially blocked.

They cook and eat on the roads, sleep in tractors and trolleys turned into temporary shelters which trail for up to 10km (6 miles) at places.

“Hundreds of volunteers, NGOs and sympathetic local people are helping to keep the protest alive,” Mishra said.

Near the Singhu border, locals have opened their homes so that the women among the protesters can use the toilets.

“One gentleman in Panipat brought a tractor-load of cauliflower one day, a person with a dairy is giving 250 litres [66 gallons] of milk every day, farmers go back to their villages to bring vegetables, grains. People, especially from the Sikh community, have donated blankets and tents.”

Opposition demands repeal of laws

Meanwhile, India’s main opposition Congress party pressed the government to call a special parliamentary session to withdraw the new agricultural laws.

“The prime minister wants to help two, three business people” by introducing the farm laws, said Rahul Gandhi, the great-grandson of India’s founding prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.

“The farmers will not go home,” he told reporters after meeting President Ram Nath Kovind on Thursday to demand a joint session of parliament “to discuss and repeal the laws”.

Police in New Delhi detained dozens of Congress leaders and workers as they tried to march towards the presidential residence, including Priyanka Gandhi, Rahul’s sister.

Police said in a statement 58 men and six women protesters, including several leaders, were detained for violating the coronavirus pandemic measures. They were released later, police said.

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