Talks break down, govt tells unions it won’t accept demand to repeal laws
Union agriculture minister Narendra Singh Tomar on Friday told farm unions that the government would not repeal three contentious agricultural laws, and a proposal to suspend the legislation for 18 months was the best it could offer, leading to the collapse of a long series of negotiations just two days after an agreement appeared in sight.
No dates were announced for any further discussions.
Tomar said the dialogue process could only restart if the farmers reconsidered the government’s most far-reaching proposal so far, and asked the farm unions to inform the latter by January 23 if they were ready to change their minds.
The farmers, who have rigidly called for either a repeal of the laws or nothing, on Friday vowed to intensify their agitation — the biggest the Modi government has faced so far, and one that has seen tens of thousands of farmers from Punjab and Haryana camping on the Capital’s borders for 57 days.
The farm unions stressed that they would be going ahead with a tractor rally in Delhi on January 26, but said they would do it after India’s Republic Day celebrations and not disrupt the official function.
“I am not an astrologer. I don’t know what will happen tomorrow,” Tomar told reporters after the 11th round of negotiations with representatives of a common platform for multiple farm unions. “This is the best we could have offered to the farmers.”
The agriculture minister blamed unnamed “forces” for failure of the talks and criticised “people with vested interests who wanted the talks to be unsuccessful”.
“When an agitation is named after farmers, is related to farmers’ issue, and the government tries so hard to resolve it with one proposal after the other, then there is some force which wants to the agitation to continue so that farmers’ welfare cannot happen,” the agriculture minister said. “If there are other interests at play, then farmers’ interests can’t be secured. If farm unions have people who are interested in farmers’ welfare, then our proposal would have got considered.”
Tomar said he told the farm unions the government’s proposal (to put the laws on hold and form a committee to look into the farmers’ demands) was the “best we could have done”. The minister added that he urged farm unions to reconsider their decision because the offer of the government was in the “best interest of farmers and nation”.
On the question of whether the government would ever consider a repeal, Tomar said: “The government has always said farmers can ask for anything other than repeal.”
In the negotiations on Friday, there was hardly any issue left to discuss when farm unions told the government at the outset that they wanted nothing short of a full repeal of the laws as well as a new legislation guaranteeing assured prices for farm produce.
Leaders representing the Samyukt Kisan Morcha, a collective of farm unions on strike since November, told the government that the farm unions had collectively decided against accepting the government’s proposal to put the laws on hold.
Late on Friday night, farmers gathered at the Singhu border alleged that attempts had been made to engineer violence at their protest site or during their upcoming tractor rally. Union leaders said they had detained a man who was moving suspiciously among them.
The Modi government has pushed a set of agricultural laws to ease restrictions in farm trade, allow traders to stockpile large quantities of food stocks for future sales and lay down a national framework for contract farming based on written agreements. Farmers say the laws will erode their bargaining power and leave them at the mercy of big corporations.
In the previous round of negotiations with a 41-member delegation representing farm unions on Wednesday, the Union government offered to suspend the three pieces of legislation. It also proposed a committee with representatives from the government as well as farmers to look into “all issues related to the farmers’ agitation”.
The farmers, however, hardened their stand to reject both the proposals instead of agreeing to meet the government midway. They said they would not budge from their demand for a complete repeal of the laws.
“There is no new date for further talks. We will see what to do after January 26, when we will bring out a farmers’ Republic Day parade in Delhi. We appeal to the Delhi Police to allow it,” said Gurnam Singh Chaduni, a senior leader of the agitation.
“In the talks with the (Delhi) police, the officers proposed a roadmap in front of the farmer leaders (on farmers’ Republic Day parade). Leaders will give their reply on this proposal after holding a farm unions’ meeting tomorrow (Saturday),” said Darshan Pal, a senior leader of the agitation.
A senior farm leader, Balbir Singh Rajewal, said farmers were preparing full steam for a peaceful and colourful farmers’ parade on Republic Day. He said farmers would now focus on the future course of the agitation.
Yogendra Yadav of Jai Kisan Andolan said it would be wrong to say the talks were inconclusive. “The government has broken off the discussions. What is the logic of suspending the laws for one-and-a-half years? The government hasn’t said anything meaningful yet on a law for minimum support prices,” he said, adding the main reason for not accepting the government’s proposal was that “the suspension is a limited-period offer and not a solution to the demand for a repeal of the laws.”
Experts said the farmers’ position now appeared untenable.
“The issue is no longer about reformist policies and a perceived threat to livelihoods. We haven’t so far heard about any specific fallout of the reforms from the unions. The issue is one of a status quoist demand by farmers and a lack of trust between the two sides,” said Abhinav Saikia, an agronomist with the farm startup IndAgro.
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