Unimpressed with the government's announcement on Saturday that diesel prices may be reduced by Rs 3 a litre, and the transport minister's declaration that he was ready to negotiate with them, truck operators who have been on a nationwide strike since Monday said arrested strikers had to be released before talks could take place and the stir called off.
The government's dual announcement came a day after five leaders of All India Motor Transport Congress (AIMTC) - the apex body of transporters - were arrested on charges of disrupting supply of commodities.
AIMTC general secretary S Venugopal refused to comment on the government's decision to cut diesel prices, saying the arrested leaders had to be released before he went into issues such as price cuts and talks.
"I along with four other office-bearers of AIMTC have been produced in court on Saturday. We will not give up our agitation and will not hold any talks with the government until we are released unconditionally," Venugopal told IANS.
The AIMTC is demanding reduction in prices of diesel by Rs 10 a litre, and that of tyres by at least 35 per cent, apart from uniform value-added tax across the states. An estimated six million trucks are off the roads.
In Mumbai, Petroleum Minister Murli Deora said the government is likely to cut prices of diesel by Rs 3 a litre, along with petrol (by Rs 5) and cooking gas (by Rs 20-25 a cylinder).
In the capital, Transport Minister TR Baalu said he was ready for talks, and threatened to revoke the permit of truck operators if they did not end their agitation.
"We want to impress upon the strikers to kindly call off the strike and come forward (for talks). We are ready to discuss (their demands)," the minister told reporters in New Delhi.
He said the government had been making the appeal every day. "Even now I am requesting through you (media)."
Asked how talks could take place when strike leaders had been arrested, Baalu insisted that "only a handful of people have been arrested. Other office bearers are there, they can come and discuss with me. They have not been arrested so far".
At the same time, the minister described as "irrelevant" the demands of truckers which include bringing down the prices of diesel and tyres, and added: "We will revoke their permit if the strike is not called off".
"I am only requesting them to come forward. If you want to have any clarifications, we are here to clarify," he said. "Even now I am requesting them to come forward, we will discuss."
Baalu is also expected to meet Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to apprise him of the situation.
In view of the truckers' strike, five state governments have invoked the Essential Services maintenance Act (ESMA) - Delhi, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh.
Cabinet secretary KM Chandrasekhar and other senior officials from various departments including security agencies met Saturday to review the crisis.