Agri Minister Tomar Says Govt Ready for Talks on Issues Other Than Agri Bills, Farmer Unions Unmoved

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With the talks between the Centre and the agitating farmer unions stalled since January, Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar on Wednesday expressed readiness to resume the dialogue to resolve their objections to the three new agri laws, but the unions remained adamant on their demands for a repeal of the legislations and a legal guarantee on the MSP. Amid the deadlock, West Bengal chief minister and Trinamool Congress supremo Mamata Banerjee and SAD chief Sukhbir Singh Badal questioned why the central government was not holding talks with farmers, while the Congress batted for accepting the demands of protesters and said Tomar should step down as agriculture minister.

The government has held 11 rounds of talks, the last being on January 22, with the unions to end the farmers’ protest over the laws enacted in September. “Whenever farmers want discussions, the government of India will be ready for discussion. But we have repeatedly asked them to tell the objections in the provisions with logic. We will listen and find a solution,” Tomar said on Wednesday at a Cabinet briefing.

But the farmer unions claimed the government’s stand was “unjustifiable and unreasonable”. “Protesting farmers repeat and reiterate once again that the government’s attitude is unjustifiable and unreasonable, and is resting on ego and optics-games.

“Farmers demand a full repeal of the three central laws and a new legislation to guarantee minimum support price (MSP) for all farmers,” said a statement by Samyukta Kisan Morcha, an umbrella body of agitating farmer unions. Defending the agri laws, the government has insisted that they will help increase the income of farmers and has said it can consider amendments after talks with the unions.

Our stand remains the same. Repeal the three laws, give us a written guarantee on MSP. If the government is ready to talk on this, then we are ready. Now, it is up to the government to decide about the meeting, said farmer leader Shiv Kumar Kakka. Major opposition parties have publicly backed the farmers’ agitation.

“Why is it so difficult to talk to the farmers?” Banerjee said in Kolkata after she assured farmer leaders led by Rakesh Tikait and Yudhvir Singh of support to their agitation against the new agriculture laws. “The farmers’ movement is not just for Punjab, Haryana or Uttar Pradesh. It is for the whole country,” she said.

Banerjee also promised to rally opposition-ruled states in support of the agitating farmers, and said she aims to “remove the Narendra Modi government from power”. The Congress too renewed its attack, with its chief spokesperson Randeep Surjewala saying the protesting farmers are not begging but are seeking their rights and the government should shed its stubbornness and agree to their demands.

“Farmers have died while defending their farms and the country. And yet the farmers continue to be fearless and true,” Rahul Gandhi said in a tweet in Hindi, using the hashtag “#500DeathsAtFarmersProtest”. “We demand the resignation and the removal of the agriculture minister. Somebody so egoistic and somebody so oblivious to the plight of Indian farmers has no business being a part of the Indian government,” party spokesperson Supriya Shrinate said.

Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) president Sukhbir Singh Badal asked the union agriculture minister to hold fresh talks with the agitating farmers to understand why they wanted the three farm laws to be repealed. Badal, whose party had quit the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) on the farm laws issue, said it was unfortunate that the central government had “still not realised the ills of the legislation”.

This indicates that it is firm on being intransigent and not accepting the genuine demands of the farmers at any cost. Simultaneously the government has done everything within its power to suppress the peaceful and democratic movement and continues to attempt to dislodge farmers from the Singhu and Tikri protest sites, he alleged. I appeal to Mr Narendra Tomar to hold unconditional talks with the agitating farmers and accept their demands in the interest of the farming community, he said.

Talks have not resumed following widespread violence during a tractor rally on January 26 during which protesters stormed the Red Fort and hoisted a religious flag. The Supreme Court has put on hold the implementation of the three laws till further orders and set up a committee to find a solution, as farmers, mainly from Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh continued to camp at Delhi’s borders for more than six months in protest, though their numbers have thinned.

Tomar said the government has held 11 rounds of talks with farmers, and Unions were asked about their objections in the laws and which provisions they think were against farmers. “But neither any leader of a political party gave its answer in the House (Parliament) nor any farmers’ leader, and the talks did not move forward”. “All political parties of the country wanted to bring the farm laws, but they could not gather the courage to bring them. Modi government took this big step in the interest of farmers and brought reforms. Farmers got the benefit of that in several parts of the country. But in the meantime, farmers’ agitation started,” Tomar said at the Cabinet briefing.

The minister said that the government is committed to farmers. Three union ministers, including Tomar and Food Minister Piyush Goyal, had held talks with the protesting farmer unions.

In the last meeting on January 22, the government’s negotiations with 41 farmer groups hit a roadblock as the unions squarely rejected the Centre’s proposal of putting the laws on suspension. Farmer groups have alleged that these laws will end the mandi and MSP procurement systems and leave the farmers at the mercy of big corporates, even as the government has rejected these apprehensions as misplaced.

Briefing reporters after the Cabinet meeting, Tomar again dispelled apprehensions about MSP, saying “MSP (on farm crops) is there, is being hiked and will continue in future as well”. On January 11, the Supreme Court had stayed the implementation of the three laws till further orders and appointed a four-member panel to resolve the impasse. Bhartiya Kisan Union President Bhupinder Singh Mann had recused himself from the committee appointed by the apex court.

Shetkari Sanghatana (Maharashtra) President Anil Ghanwat and agriculture economists Pramod Kumar Joshi and Ashok Gulati are the other members on the panel. They have completed the consultation process with stakeholders.

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