A make-or-mar round of talks between the Union government and farmers protesting three farm laws moved a step forward on Thursday after being repeatedly deadlocked, with the government agreeing to review the recently enacted legislation and “bring amendments” if required to address demands of farm unions. The farmers, however, stuck to their stand that the government should roll back all three laws.
The negotiations on Thursday were the fourth round of meeting between three Union ministers and farmers’ representatives, as protests by thousands of agriculturalists on Delhi’s borders simmered for the seventh straight day.
Agriculture minister Narendra Tomar, railways, food and consumer affairs minister Piyush Goyal and minister of state for commerce Som Prakash, a lawmaker from Punjab, led the government side, while representatives of some of the biggest farmers unions in the country, mainly from Punjab, spoke for the farmers.
“The government has no ego issues. The talks were with an open heart. Farmers’ leaders raised several issues and gave us their views on them. We have assured them that each of the points raised by them will be reviewed by the government and we will meet again on December 5,” Tomar said after the discussions.
While the farmers want the three farm laws approved by Parliament in September to be revoked, the government has leaned on its new reform agenda to raise farm incomes and spur investments in the sector.
The recent laws 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 (MSPs), erode their bargaining power and leave them at the mercy of private buyers.
The government enlarged the group of farmers’ representatives from 35 to 40 for Thursday’s meeting in response to the farmers’ demand. The farmers’ side for the first time included a women’s representative, Kavitha Kuruganti of the Forum for Women Farmers’ Rights.
“The farm minister said the government may bring amendments. We pointed out that if a law goes wrong on its very objective, then its various provisions are bound to go wrong. That is what happened here. That farmers have been left to fend for themselves in their market interfaces,” said Kuruganti.
In the last meeting on December 1, which was inconclusive, the agriculture minister had suggested that farm leaders identify specific issues related to the farm-reform Acts.
The farmers’ delegation spoke at length about what they saw as threats to their interests because of the reforms. These included the danger of existing notified government-controlled markets collapsing because a proposal to set up free markets in competition with traditional ones that give farmers assured prices for staples.
A new contract-farming law could imperil the landholding rights of farmers, the farmers said. They also demanded the government reverse all penalties on farmers for crop-residue burning under a new anti-pollution ordinance promulgated in October. The farmers also sought a review of a bill that provides for direct cash payments to farmers to offset costs of electricity for farming in lieu of the existing practice of providing subsidised power supply.
“We will go back review each of these provisions. We will see how we can bring parity between existing Agricultural Produce Market Committees (regulated markets) and free markets. We may bring new measures to strengthen APMC markets,” Tomar said.
The farm minister also said the government would review the impact of a power supply amendment bill pending in Parliament on farmers and review a recent law, which provides for settlement of disputes between farmers and traders at the magistrate level. Farmers have demanded that they be free to approach civil courts to settle such disputes.
The farmers also sought a legal guarantee to federally fixed MSPs so that no private buyer can purchase any major farm produce below state-set threshold prices. The government assured the farmers that the MSP system, under which it buys staples at profitable rates, will continue but did not commit to a law prohibiting sale of any major farm produce below state-set support prices, as sought by farmers.
The farmers concluded by saying that the issue is not about “any one particular clause”, but about the “direction in which the government is pushing farming in India”, said Avik Saha, secretary of the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee (AIKCC).
Jagmohan Singh, a farm leader who was part of the talks, said farmers unanimously demanded a repeal of the “three black laws”. “All our objections and fear will go if the three laws are taken back.”