Farm unions protesting against three recent laws that aim to liberalise the agricultural economy said on Wednesday that they will not restart negotiations until the Centre draws up a new agenda, presenting an increasingly difficult challenge to a Union government trying to find a way to end a month-long agitation on the Capital’s borders.
After a large meeting of nearly 100 farm leaders, the protesters also reiterated that they would remain at the protest sites, where thousands have gathered over 29 days, until their demand — a repeal of the laws — was met.
A senior farm leader, who wrote to the government on Tuesday informing it of the farmers’ decision not to set a date for resuming talks, for the first time spelt out a demand for an expansive system of guaranteed prices, rather than the government’s mere assurance on continuing the current system of minimum support prices (MSPs).
Farm minister Narendra Singh Tomar on Wednesday said farm unions should come for talks and that thousands of farmers sleeping out in the bitter cold was a “matter of deep concern” for the government.
While the farm minister has been at pains to explain the benefits of the reforms, the farmers say they won’t budge until they are scrapped.
On Wednesday, a farm union leader representing the unions responded to the government’s December 9 letter that offered to restart dialogue on a set of proposals and concessions it had sent out to the farmers. In it, the government asked the unions to suggest a date to meet again.
Darshan Pal, a senior leader representing the farm unions, told HT that the unions were not averse to talking but they could not “set a fresh date” for the talks because the proposals the government had presented to them were “not acceptable”.
“The government has to revise them because we had rejected these proposals on December 5 during our meeting,” he said.
The farm unions also sent a letter to the agriculture ministry on Wednesday, signed by Pal. “We request the government that instead of repeating your proposals and amendments, you should offer something concrete in writing so that we can make that the basis of our agenda to resume the dialogue process,” it stated.
Experts said this pretty much squashes hopes of negotiations restarting anytime soon.
The standoff between the Union government and farmers continues over the passage of new legislation to open up the country’s agricultural sector to private investment, a move the government says will enable farmers better incomes and modernise the farm sector. Farmers say the reforms will leave them at the mercy of private corporations.
The government earlier this month sent a set of written proposals to amend several provisions of the laws for greater oversight on deregulated markets, sparing farmers penalties for stubble burning, which causes pollution, and promising to keep providing farmers subsidised power instead of direct cash transfer.
The government also promised to give a written assurance to continue its mechanism of setting minimum crop prices and procuring food produce, mainly staples, but did not offer to write it in law.
Farmers have spurned these proposals, which the government is banking on to find a solution.
On Wednesday, Pal spelt out why, according to the unions, 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 MSP is calculated using a measure of cultivation cost known as A2+FL, which is a narrower measure of costs of farming that takes into account all expenses of farming a particular crop plus the value of family labour.
Pal said the 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 want the government to buy all 23 commodities, which would bloat its food subsidy bill hugely.
Farmers have demanded that government continue its policy of continuing power subsidy to farmers, rather than switch to providing cash instead. “Your proposal on continuing the subsidy is vague. Unless you say that you will shelve all plans to switch from subsidy to cash, we cannot reply to your proposal on this,” the letter said.
By rejecting the proposals made by the government, the farmers have sought to put the onus on the government to draw up a revised agenda that is geared towards what the farmers are still adamant on — a roll-back of the reforms.
Analysts say expanding the threshold of crop quantities procured by the government at MSP could help reassure farmers.
“Instead of MSP as a price guarantee that farmers are demanding, the government could insert a quantity guarantee clause for a minimum period of five years,” said Soumya Kanti Ghosh, group chief economic adviser of SBI, the largest state-owned lender.