(Photo by PRAKASH SINGH/AFP via Getty Images)

Indian prime minister Narendra Modi said on Friday his government was a victim of “lies and conspiracy” as it struggled to defuse growing protests by tens of thousands of farmers threatening to encircle New Delhi.

With more protesters gathering at entrances to the capital every day, Modi stepped up efforts to placate the rural agitation against his market reforms.

Protesters have blocked major roads into Delhi for more than three weeks opposing laws which enable them to sell produce on the open market instead of just through state-run bodies that guarantee a minimum price.

Farmers have demanded the repeal of the laws, which they say invite corporate domination of food production.

So far, the protesters have mainly come from northern Indian states. But on Friday a union in the central state of Maharashtra said thousands of members would join the protesters.

Union leaders say they will take the action into the new year, and have set up tent cities for protesters to counter the freezing cold.

They have threatened to cripple the capital with a huge rally involving tractors on January 26, when British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is to be a special guest at the annual Republic Day celebrations.

Modi said in a video speech to one farmers’ group that opposition parties had exploited the protests, despite having supported the rural reforms.

The government’s rivals were “spreading lies for their own political gain. They are using the farmers’ shoulders to fire their guns”, he said.

Claims that minimum prices would be ended were just part of the “lies and conspiracy”.

“I just want to make the farmers’ lives easier,” Modi said.

Agriculture employs about 70 percent of India’s 1.3 billion people and accounts for 15 percent of its $2.7 trillion economy.

But in recent decades farm incomes have stagnated, farmers face a growing debt crisis and experts say the sector badly needs investment and modernisation.

Five rounds of talks between ministers and unions have failed to produce a breakthrough.