Farm unions agree to talk to govt on Dec 29
Farm unions protesting three contentious agricultural laws on Saturday agreed to restart negotiations with the government, ending a stalemate in talks to resolve a month-long, politically challenging agitation by tens of thousands of farmers.
Farm unions, who have hunkered down at the capital’s borders, on Saturday sent a letter to a senior bureaucrat of the agriculture ministry in which they agreed to hold delegation-level talks with the central government on December 29 at 11am.
The farmers maintain that talks must be geared toward a repeal of the three laws they say will hurt their incomes. Talks between the unions and a team comprising three Union ministers — Narendra Tomar, Piyush Goyal and Som Parkash — had run aground on December 8, after the unions’ meeting with home minister Amit Shah.
Farmers were to meet on December 9 with the three ministers for the sixth time but they called off the meeting, saying the talks were going nowhere since the government was not agreeing to their core demands.
“We have consistently demanded the repeal of the three central farm acts, whereas the government has distorted our position as if we were asking for amendments to these acts,” said the letter by Samyukt Kisan Morcha, the platform of unions, to joint secretary in the farm ministry, Vivek Agrawal.
“Be that as it may, since you are willing to hold a meeting on date, time and issues of our choosing, we make the following proposal on behalf of Samyukt Kisan Morcha after due consultation with all organisations,” the unions wrote, framing an agenda that has four main issues.
Farm unions spelt out four demands in order of priorities; first, they said, “modalities (are) to be adopted for the repeal of the three Central Farm Acts”.
Second, the unions want “mechanisms to be adopted to make remunerative MSP recommended by the National Farmers’ Commission into a legally guaranteed entitlement for all farmers and all agricultural commodities”.
These top two demands are the trickiest. Although the government has made attempts to restart negotiations with the unions, it is not prepared to scrap its three laws.
On Saturday, Union home minister Amit Shah urged the protesting farmers to resolve their issues through discussions.
Commenting on the letter, an official who participated in the previous rounds of talks said on condition of anonymity: “We welcome the farmers’ decision. The government is ready to discuss any issue, whether new or old. We have said this in writing. I am not in a position to comment more on this.”
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, the laws will allow big corporations and global supermarket chains 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, whereby the government buys staples, such as wheat and rice, at guaranteed rates, known as minimum support price (MSP).
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in an address to farmers on Friday, said his government was open to talks with farm unions and even opposition parties who have pressed on with a massive pushback against the farm policies so long as discussions were based on “tark” and “tathya” (Hindi for ‘arguments’ and ‘facts’), but staunchly defended his farm-reform agenda needed to “modernise” the farm sector.
The government has proposed a set of concessions and amendments; these include greater oversight of proposed free markets and a written assurance on continuing the mechanism of MSP.
Saturday’s letter made it clear that the farmers not only want a law mandating MSP, but they want an expansive system of guaranteed prices based on a broader measure of farming costs.
The government has promised to continue its mechanism of setting minimum crop prices and procuring food produce, mainly staples, a proposal it is banking on to find a solution.
Farm leader Darshan Pal spelt out why the assurance on minimum prices was not enough.
The government sets minimum prices for 23 commodities but mainly buys wheat and rice at these floor prices. The so-called minimum support prices or MSP is calculated using a measure of cultivation cost known as A2+FL, which is a narrower measure of costs of cultivation that takes into account all expenses of raising a particular crop plus the value of family labour.
Farm unions want the government to adopt a comprehensive measure of cultivation costs that include the imputed cost of capital and the rent on the land, called ‘C2’ in economic parlance.
Farmers also made it clear that they want the government to buy all 23 commodities, which would bloat its food subsidy bill.
“There is no question that farmers need support. But they need to be supported in less market-distorting ways,” said Pravesh Sharma, a fellow at think tank ICRIER.
To be sure, Indian farmers get lower-than-global prices in most items not procured by the government because of oversupply and the government’s efforts to keep food inflation low.
The farmers also want amendments in an ordinance to completely exclude farmers from any penalties for crop-residue burning, a major cause of pollution, they stated in their letter.
The letter lastly stated that farmers want “changes to be made in the draft Electricity Amendment Bill 2020 to protect the interests of farmers”.
The bill proposes to provide cash instead of subsidised power for agricultural use. Farmers say the changeover could increase power costs for them.
In a related development, Rashtriya Loktantrik Party (RLP) convener and Nagaur MP Hanuman Beniwal announced a split from the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) over the three farm laws. “I am not stuck with Fevicol with the NDA. Today, I separate myself from the NDA,” Beniwal said while addressing a farmers’ rally in Shahjahanpur in Alwar district.