Farmers participate in a tractor rally to protest against the newly passed farm bills, on a highway on the outskirts of New Delhi, India on Thursday. [ADNAN ABIDI/REUTERS]

KUNDLI, India-Tens of thousands of farmers on tractors occupied a stretch of an expressway on the periphery of the Indian capital New Delhi on Thursday in one of the biggest shows of strength since they began a sit-in against deregulation of farm markets more than a month ago.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has held several rounds of talks with the farmers to placate them, offering concessions on the three laws it passed last year to bring private investment into the country’s antiquated agriculture markets.

But the farmers have resisted the overtures and been camped at an interstate border near the village of Kundli outside New Delhi for more than 40 days demanding the government withdraw the laws.

On Thursday, the protesters mostly from the Sikh-dominated northern state of Punjab, which is one of the country’s leading producers of wheat and rice, took to the highway.

Turbaned young men and elderly farmers with flowing beards rode a convoy of tractors numbering in the thousands, some with loud music blaring.

There was no sign of any police presence.

“We want Modi to repeal the three laws,” said Rajvinder Singh, 35, a farmer from Punjab’s Gurdaspur district.

He said the rally was a way to build pressure on the government in the lead-up to India’s Republic Day on Jan 26 when the farm unions have threatened to march on to the center of the capital if the laws are not revoked by then.

Parminder Kaur, 40, said: “I am fighting for my children and my grandchildren.”

Her family has nearly 8,000 square meters of land where they grow wheat. “This land is everything for us; it is like our mother,” she said. “They want to snatch our mother away from us. How can we allow this?”

Deregulation fears

Farmers fear that the deregulation under which food processors and big retailers can directly buy produce from them will eventually replace government-regulated wholesale markets where they are guaranteed a minimum price for their produce.

The government says the state-regulated market yards will continue alongside the new ones and has offered to give written assurances to the farmers they will continue to get a minimum price.

Modi said the reforms will attract badly needed investment to a sector which employs about two-thirds of India’s 1.3 billion population, but contributes only about 15 percent to its economy.

However, farmer leaders said the changes will lead to a takeover of the agriculture business by Indian conglomerates. They said they would not give up their fight unless the government agrees to repeal the laws, approved by parliament in September.

On Monday, the government refused to roll back the farm reform laws, but the two sides agreed to sit down again for another round of talks.

In their previous meeting on Dec 30, the two sides reached a consensus on two issues-that the government would continue its subsidy of electricity for irrigating farms and that farmers would not be punished for burning crop residues, a cause of air pollution.

Agencies via Xinhua