Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Wednesday invited protesting farmers for talks to address growers' concerns about three new agricultural laws that seek to deregulate the country's vast farm sector.
Tens of thousands of farmers have been camping out on main highways on the outskirts of New Delhi for more than two months in a bid to force the government to withdraw the new laws they say benefit private buyers at their expense.
Defending the laws passed by his government in September, Modi said: "The laws give farmers the freedom to directly sell produce to buyers, unshackling them from the age-old restriction of selling crops only through wholesale markets."
The laws were designed to give an option to farmers, without weakening existing wholesale markets, Modi told parliament. Lawmakers from the main opposition Congress party walked out of parliament, expressing solidarity with the protesting farmers.
Protesting farmers accuse the government of introducing the laws to help large private retailers. Growers say the laws will gradually make traditional wholesale markets irrelevant and farmers will be left at the mercy of private buyers.
Modi said India's agriculture sector needed investment to help modernise the food supply chain and improve infrastructure, critical to raising farmers' incomes, and India's private sector should not be viewed with suspicion.
"India's private sector has played an important role in the nation's welfare, and we need wealth creators here," he said.
Stressing the need to switch to profitable crops such as fruit and horticulture, Modi said Indian farmers needed to look beyond growing rice and wheat.
After years of bountiful harvests, India struggles with bulging inventories of rice and wheat worth billions of dollars that lie unsold in government warehouses.
Modi also asked protesters and their supporters to stop vandalising toll plazas and telecommunication masts.