PM’s fresh appeal but farmers harden stand
Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Monday said farmers were being misled on three recently enacted laws aimed at liberalising the sector, and reached out to the agricultural community for the second time in two days, but protesters camping at Delhi’s borders seeking the repeal of the legislation insisted there was no turning back and stressed that their demands were “non-negotiable”.
On a day the agitation by cultivators at two key entry points to Delhi entered its fourth day, and continued to impact traffic movement to and from Haryana, Union agriculture minister Narendra Singh Tomar announced that the government invited leaders of the agitation for talks on Tuesday, advancing by two days a proposed meeting between central functionaries and the farm community. The previous round of talks on November 13 involved farm leaders, Tomar, and railways, food and consumer affairs minister Piyush Goyal. Before that, another meeting was held on October 14.
“It was decided that next round of talks will be held on December 3, but farmers are agitating, it’s winter and there’s Covid-19. So, the meeting should be held earlier.
Farm leaders — present in the first round of talks — have been invited at Vigyan Bhavan on December 1 at 3pm,” he told news agency ANI.
His announcement came hours after Modi termed the contentious farm laws “historic”, and reiterated that his government at the Centre was committed to increasing farmers’ incomes. “The farmers are being deceived on these historic agriculture reform laws by the same people who have misled them for decades,” Modi said in his Lok Sabha constituency Varanasi, apparently referring to opposition parties. He, however, did not name anyone. “These same people have in the past played tricks with farmers in the name of MSP (minimum support prices), loan waiver and fertiliser subsidy,” Modi said, while strongly backing the new laws.
At the border points near Delhi, farm leaders appeared to have hardened their stand, asserting they marched to the Capital for a “decisive battle” against the laws, which they say will adversely impact the MSP system that offers cultivators assured prices from the government, and help corporate players. “Our demands are non-negotiable... We have come here to fight a decisive battle,” Balbir Singh Rajewal of the Bharatiya Kisan Union said at a press conference at the Singhu border, which opens into Sonepat and is one of the two key points blocked by the farmers. He said the ruling party “will have to pay a heavy price” if it did not pay attention to farmers’ concerns. Another farmer leader, Gurnam Singh Chaduni, said the stir will continue until their demands were met.
On the occasion of Guru Nanak Jayanti, demonstrators offered prayers and distributed “prasad” to each other and also to security personnel guarding the borders at Singhu and Tikri (it opens into Bahadurgarh).
Thousands of protesters, especially from food bowl Punjab, have stayed put at the two border points since November 27. The police have denied them entry into the Capital and placed multi-layer barricades at the borders. Tractor-trolleys have turned into temporary shelters with farmers spending chilly nights under tarpaulin in their vehicles as temperatures plummet. Many have brought ration and other essentials to see themselves through this period.
On Sunday, farm leaders spearheading the agitation set fresh terms for talks with the Union government, demanding the Centre name and authorise a Cabinet Committee or a Group of Ministers for future discussions. They also rejected Union home minister Shah’s offer to advance the date for the next round of talks and said the home ministry should not lead the discussions as agriculture was outside its jurisdiction.
Shah and Tomar met earlier on Monday, the second such meeting in a span of 24 hours, to discuss their course of action. And at night, Tomar announced that a section of farm leaders were called for talks on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, the Delhi Traffic Police advised commuters to take alternative routes to enter and exit Haryana, with the border points at Singhu and Tikri being blocked. Apart from traffic movement, the protest has already hit the supply of goods from Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, and Jammu and Kashmir, leaving fruits and vegetable traders in the city worried.
The Delhi Police placed concrete barriers and bolstered security at the Ghazipur border with Uttar Pradesh as the number of protesters swelled there too. Barricades were also in place at the Noida border.
A small group that reached the Nirankarai Samagam Ground in Burari on Saturday continued its demonstration there under the police’s watch. Farm leaders on Sunday said they will not move to the Burari protest site in north Delhi, as suggested by the Centre, and threatened to block all five entry points to the city after a meeting of over 30 groups.
A large section of farmers has demanded the repeal of the three laws enacted by Parliament in September, which, together, allow agribusinesses to freely trade farm produce without restrictions, permit private traders to stockpile large quantities of essential commodities for future sales and lay down new rules for contract farming. Farmers say the reforms will make them vulnerable to exploitation by big corporations, erode their bargaining power, weaken the government’s MSP system, and will eventually be detrimental to the farm sector, which supports nearly half the population.The government has sought to allay the concerns with PM Modi taking the lead.
In his Varanasi address on Monday, Modi said farmers who wanted to follow the old system of trading – referring to the “mandis” where they can get the MSP – were still free to do so. The three laws gave farmers new options, he said. “Earlier, transactions outside the market were illegal. Now the small farmer can also take legal action on every deal that is out of the market,” Modi added. He said whenever new laws were enacted, questions were bound to be asked. “But presently a new trend is being seen in the country. The protests are based on creating doubts through misinformation.” A day ago, he said in his Mann Ki Baat radio address that the legislation added “new dimensions” to agriculture and related activities and broke decades-old “shackles”.
Notwithstanding Modi’s attempts at reaching out to farmers, the opposition Congress party on Monday launched a social media campaign to muster support for the cultivators who are up in arms against the liberalisation move.
“The Modi government has persecuted the farmer — first it brought black laws and then used lathis against them, but it forgot that when the farmer raises his voice, it resonates throughout the country. You also raise your voice against the exploitation of farmers and join the #SpeakUpForFarmers campaign,” Congress leader Rahul Gandhi said in a tweet in Hindi.
Ashok Maheshwari, a political scientist with Institute of Development Studies in Jaipur, said the government underestimated the farmers’ opposition to the laws from the very beginning. “...The government has said the laws bring freedom from middlemen, but the farmers see intermediaries as necessary service providers. So, the government does seem to have underestimated the role of very entrenched political-economy forces in the farm trade,” Maheshwari said.
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