A delegation of protesting farmers’ leaders from Punjab invited for talks by Union agriculture secretary Sanjay Agarwal walked out of the meeting, demanding the presence of farm minister Narendra Singh Tomar, according to an umbrella platform representing the cultivators.
The Centre had invited at least 31 farmers’ organisations and their leaders from Punjab for talks in New Delhi, the second attempt in a month to reach out to farmers protesting a set of laws enacted to liberalise agricultural markets. “The meeting was an effort to try and create a false impression that the central government is engaging with farmers, when in fact it is going all out to roll out and enforce the black anti-farmer laws,” the All-India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee said.
The farmers’ delegation demanded the presence of agriculture minister Tomar and tore up copies of the laws. “First, the government should be ready to review and if necessary, repeal the three laws. Second, the government should be ready to consider legislating minimum support price as a legal right and deal with input cost…” the AIKSCC said. Avik Saha, convener of the AIKSCC, said the meeting with the agriculture secretary “did not meet any of these criteria” as a the bureaucrat is not in position to repeal, amend or enact new laws. “Rather his job is to implement the laws made by government so he is the wrong person for the right discussion,” Saha said. Farmers have blocked roads and railway tracks since September 24 in a protest against legislation they fear could pave the way for the government to stop buying cereals at guaranteed prices (minimum support prices or MSPs), leaving them vulnerable to exploitation by private entities.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, defending the laws, has called the new measures “historic”. He has said that while the laws give farmers options to sell their produce to private buyers, the government would continue to purchase staples at MSPs. The laws seek to end local monopolies of regulated markets known as agricultural produce marketing committees by opening up to private competition. These assurances have done little to satisfy farmers in Punjab, Haryana and western parts of Uttar Pradesh. Big farmers’ groups, who usually produce substantial surpluses, fear deregulation will leave them vulnerable to powerful agribusinesses.
The reforms are a crucial test for the Modi government’s ability to push through structural policy changes in the antiquated agriculture sector, which supports nearly half of all Indians, while mollifying especially large farmers in the food bowl states.
A statement by the agriculture ministry, however, said that the farmers’ leaders sat through the discussions for nearly two hours before submitting a memorandum. Asked about the absence of agriculture minister at the meeting, Union minister Prakash Javadekar said: “If some one wants more (discussion), we are always open (to) meet everyone. But (agriculture minister Narendra Singh) Tomarji has an engagement today, therefore he has gone. When he will get free, he will meet all. There is no problem in this.”