Farm talks deadlocked, another round on December 9
The fifth round of talks between protesting farmers and the Centre showed no signs of progress, dealing a blow to the government’s offer to bring a set of amendments to the three new farm laws that agriculturists say will hurt their interests. Farm unions stuck to their demand for a full withdrawal of the legislation, but agreed to another meeting on December 9.
With the stalemate persisting, farmers’ representatives said they would intensify their agitation, as thousands laid siege to the Capital’s entry points for the tenth straight day. They have called for a nationwide blockade on December 8.
The government team, led by agriculture minister Narendra Tomar, railways, food and consumer affairs minister Piyush Goyal and minister of state for commerce Som Prakash, offered to make four major amendments to the set of farm laws during the talks, although they presented no written material, an official said, requesting anonymity.
While the government has leaned on its new reform agenda for better crop prices and higher investments in the farm sector, farmers say changes approved by Parliament in September would allow big corporations to exploit them.
The government on Saturday proposed new rules for free markets provided for by The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020, one of the laws being opposed by the farmers.
Before the meeting, home minister Amit Shah, Tomar, defence minister Rajnath Singh and Goyal met Prime Minister Narendra Modi for an hour to discuss the four amendments they had offered to make.
During the talks, the government made four verbal offers. One, it offered to amend the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020, to levy trade fees in new free markets to create a level playing field between these and traditional, government-controlled notified markets.
Farmers say free markets, where traders don’t have to pay any trade fee, will wipe out traditional markets which they depend on for assured prices of staples.
Two, the government said it was open to bringing a system of registration for traders in free markets to help bring transparency in farm trade, price levels and traceability of traders.
Three, the government said it would bring new clauses to its new contract-farming legislation – the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020 – to strengthen farmers’ land-holding rights.
Lastly, officials said it would allow farmers to approach any civil court to settle disputes with traders. Under the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020, such disputes were to be settled at the level of a sub-divisional magistrate within 30 days.
Farmers feel they should be free to approach higher courts, but the government has maintained that restricting dispute settlement to the local level was done for speedier resolution.
The talks stalled at one point, as farmers carried out a silent protest on their seats during the discussions, according to Kavitha Kuruganti of the Women Farmers’ Rights Forum, a participant.
“We rejected the proposal for amendments. All members of delegation have decided to keep silent. The government side was trying to draw us out. There was utter silence from our side,” Kuruganti said.
Farmers showed placards, asking the government to say ‘yes or no’ on the demand for complete withdrawal of the laws, said Rakesh Tikait, the leader of the influential Bharatiya Kisan Union (Tikait faction).
The government sought more time to come up with a “concrete proposal” and “written suggestions” from the farmers would help take the talks forward, Tomar said.
He appealed to the farmer leaders to send elderly protesters and children home.
Kuruganti said the agriculture minister concluded by complimenting the farmers for holding a “disciplined and peaceful protests, which were free from party political”. “That’s quite a distance from the initial view of the government that the farmers were misled and were being instigated.”
The recent reforms in the antiquated farm sector allow businesses to freely trade farm produce outside the so-called government-controlled mandi system, permit private traders to stockpile large quantities of essential commodities for future sales and lay down new rules for contract farming.
Farmers fear the reforms could pave the way for the government to stop buying staples at federally fixed minimum support prices (MSP), erode their bargaining power and leave them at the mercy of private buyers.
“The issue is not about one particular clause, but about the direction in which the Govt of India is pushing farming in India,” said Avik Saha, the secretary of the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee (AIKSCC).
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