Farm laws stir: Breakthrough as govt accepts two demands of farmers
The widely anticipated sixth round of talks finally led to some headway in the standoff between the Union government and protesting farm unions on Wednesday, with the Centre acceding to the demand to spare farmers heavy fines for crop-residue burning, as provided for in an anti-pollution ordinance, and to continue the current mechanism of giving subsidised power for agricultural use.
However, with the two principal demands of a repeal of three new farm laws and a legal guarantee of minimum support prices yet to be discussed, the light at the end of the tunnel is still faint. The government also offered to form a five-member panel to examine the farm laws, which was also rejected by the farmers. “On the farm unions’ demand for the repeal of farm laws, the (agriculture) minister said that this too can be referred to a committee which will study the constitutional validity and propriety keeping in mind the welfare of farmers,” a government statement said.
The farm unions have been asking the government to scrap three new agricultural laws approved by Parliament in September, and to bring a new legislation guaranteeing that all farm produce be bought at federally fixed assured rates. The government did not take up these core demands on Wednesday, deferring them till the next round of talks on January 4, which the farmers have agreed to participate in.
When farmers raised the issue of repealing the farm laws, the government side asked the union leaders to come up with “alternatives” to a roll-back of the laws, an official aware of the discissions said, requesting anonymity. The farmers rejected this proposal, and insisted that their protest on the outskirts of Delhi would continue until the laws were repealed.
Agriculture minister Narendra Singh Tomar also asked the farm leaders to detail what their issues with the three laws were, the official added.
On the issue of a legal backing for MSP, the government “proposed to form a committee to look into the demand, which we rejected”, said Kavitha Kuruganti, the lone woman representative of farmers who participated in the talks.
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Union ministers Tomar, Piyush Goyal and Som Parkash led the government side, while 41 leaders of farm unions represented the farmers.
Progress was made when the three ministers declared that the government would keep farmers out of the Delhi-NCR anti-pollution ordinance, and make changes in the draft Electricity Amendment Bill 2020 to protect their interests.
The anti-pollution ordinance invoked in October has harsh provisions to fine polluters up to ₹1 crore, including farmers. The burning of crop residue is one of the major causes of severe pollution in northern India.
The government had also proposed to switch to giving direct cash to farmers instead of power subsidy, which farm unions had opposed, saying the move will increase irrigation costs. The government agreed not to go ahead with this change.
“We have been able to agree on two out of four major demands. There were mutual agreements on the electricity amendment bill and on keeping farmers out of the anti-pollution ordinance,” farm minister Tomar said.
The minister said the talks were held in a very “cordial atmosphere”. He said the remaining two demands — on repealing the laws and a legislation on MSP — would be discussed on January 4. “I once again appeal to farmers to at least send back the elderly, women and children taking part in the protests in this extreme cold weather,” Tomar said.
Although the farmers wanted the discussions to focus first on the repeal of the farm laws, Tomar suggested that the easier issues be taken up first and then declared the government’s intention to accede to the demands on changes in power subsidy and the anti-pollution law.
There appeared to be greater bonhomie between both the sides, with the three Union ministers seen sharing meals the farm leaders had brought with them during the lunch break. The farm leaders reciprocated the gesture by having tea served by the government. In five earlier rounds of talks, the farm leaders had refused to partake of meals served by the government.
But the farmers, at the same time, said they would intensify their agitation until the two larger demands were met. “We consider the two demands that were accepted today to be the minor demands, while the government deferred the more solid, core demands of repealing the laws till the next talks on January 4. In its December 9 proposals, the government had already hinted it would accede to these demands,” Kuruganti said.
Darshan Pal, the leader of Krantikari Kisan Union, said the acceptance of the two demands on Wednesday was a “step forward” but the agitation would continue.
Farm unions have launched one of the largest strikes in decades to demand that the Centre revoke the three contentious laws approved by Parliament in September. The laws essentially change the way India’s farmers do business by creating free markets as opposed to a network of decades-old, government marketplaces; allowing traders to stockpile essential commodities for future sales; and laying down a national framework for contract farming.
These laws are The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020, the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020 and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act 2020. Together, they will allow big corporations to buy directly from farmers, bypassing decades-old regulations.
Farmers say the reforms will make them vulnerable to exploitation by big corporations, erode their bargaining power and weaken the government’s procurement system.
“The government’s acceptance of the two demands today was predictable since these were the less complicated of the four demand,” said RS Mani, a former economist with the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University.
Mani said the government was right to propose a committee to examine the demand for a law on MSP for its economic consequences.
Kuruganti said the farm leaders rejected the idea of a committee because “farmers have a long history of experiences with government committees which are used cleverly to water down demands”.
On Wednesday, in an interview to wire service ANI, Union defence minister Rajnath Singh called farmers the “backbone of the country”. He said he didn’t approve of farmers being branded “Naxals” and “Khalistanis”.
“I don’t know who is making these allegations, but farmers are farmers.”
“I appeal to farmers to at least wait for two years, give a chance to the farm years as an experiment and see the results,” the defence minister said.
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