PM Modi bats for reforms again; Farmers picket toll plazas, threaten bigger stir

Agitating farmers picketed highway toll plazas in Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan on Saturday and claimed thousands more will soon arrive on Delhi’s borders to intensify their stir against the Centre’s new agri laws, even as Prime Minister again asserted that these reforms will help increase the income of cultivators.

Hundreds of security personnel were deployed at border points on highways linking Delhi following an announcement by the farmer unions to block the Jaipur-Delhi and the Delhi-Agra Expressways on Saturday.

Read: With march and hunger strike, farmers to intensify protests

The roads functioned by and large normally though the protesters did block some stretches briefly and did not allow the collection of toll at many places.

Farmer leaders said major highways linking the national capital will be blocked from Sunday and they will sit on a hunger strike on December 14, when they have called for a nationwide protest.

While both the Centre and farmer unions have said that they are open to talks after the cancellation of the meeting on December 9, there were voices of mutual recrimination as the farmers’ protest continued on the 17th day with no sign of end to the deadlock.

Union Minister Som Prakash, who is negotiating with protesting farmers, said efforts are being made to call an early meeting with farmer leaders.

The two sides have had five rounds of talks. The farmers have rejected a government offer to amend the farm laws and give a “written assurance” on continuing the MSP system.

“We are trying to call a meeting early. …We are discussing. The date has not been finalized,” the minister told PTI, adding “ultimately, we have to resolve this issue through dialogue. There is no other way out. They (farmers) also know it, we also know.”

Sticking to their demand for the repeal of the three agri laws, the farmer leaders accused the government of trying to divide them.

Their statement came as Union Minister Piyush Goyal and some other BJP leaders said the agitation no longer remains a farmers’ movement as it has been “infiltrated by Leftist and Maoist elements” demanding the release of those put behind bars for “anti-national activities”.

Haryana Deputy Chief Minister Dushyant Chautala, whose JJP is in alliance with the BJP, met Union Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar in Delhi and said he is hopeful that the next round of talks between the Centre and the unions will take place in the next 24-40 hours.

Addressing a press conference at Singhu Border, farmer leader Kanwalpreet Singh Pannu said that thousands of farmers will start their ‘Delhi Chalo’ march with their tractors from Rajasthan’s Shahjahanpur through the Jaipur-Delhi Highway at 11 AM on Sunday.

The distance between Shahjahanpur and Delhi-Gurgaon border is around 94 km.

Farmer leaders said more protesters were on their way from Punjab and Harayana too.

Spelling out their strategy to make the agitation even “bigger”, the farmer leader announced that their “mothers, sisters and daughters will also join them soon”, and that arrangements for their stay are being made at the protest sites.

“If the government wants to hold talks, we are ready, but our main demand will remain the scrapping of the three laws. We will move onto our other demands only after that,” Pannu said.

Farmer union leaders will also sit on a hunger strike between 8 AM and 5 PM at the Singhu Border during the nationwide protest on December 14 against the new agriculture laws, he said.

“The government tried to weaken our agitation by dividing us (various farmer unions). I want to say that the ongoing agitation is fully under the control of 32 farmer unions. We will fail every government attempt to divide us,” Pannu also said.

Pannu claimed all toll plazas in Haryana “were made free today”. In Punjab, toll plazas have remained free since October 1 he told reporters.

Some union leaders said that farmers could not block the highways on Saturday because most of them were on their way to Delhi from remote areas of Rajasthan and Haryana.

“Also, police barricades have been put up on several road stretches so farmers could not reach Delhi on Saturday. All farmers have assembled near Rajasthan’s Shahjahanpur on Saturday and tomorrow morning, they would head towards the national capital,” Pannu added.

More than 100 farmers gathered at a toll plaza on the Ambala-Hisar highway, around 15 kilometers from Ambala city.

Farmers also did not allow the collection of fees from commuters at Bastara and Peont toll plazas in Karnal on NH-44 and Karnal-Jind highway respectively.

Farmers also took over four toll plazas in Hisar district, one on Jind-Nirwana highway among others.

In Uttar Pradesh, dozens of farmers were detained in different parts of Aligarh for trying to occupy toll plazas. Similar incidents of protests trying to picket toll plaza were reported from other districts including Kaushambi.

In Rajasthan, Rashtriya Loktantrik Party (RLP) MP Hanuman Beniwal joined a demonstration as farmers blocked highways in dozens of places.

Addressing the Kisan Mahapanchayat organized at Kotputli, Beniwal said that the Centre did not discuss it with the stakeholders before bringing the farm laws.

Farmers held demonstrations in districts like Kota, Ganganagar, Bharatpur, Hanumangarh and Alwar. In many places, toll plazas on the highway were closed and vehicles were allowed to move without paying the tax.

Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot appealed to the people to maintain peace during the agitation.

“Even on the Delhi-Jaipur highway, farmers should place their demands democratically in front of the center and maintain peace,” he tweeted

In Punjab, toll charges are not being collected from commuters as farmers have been staging sit-ins at toll plazas since October 1.

The National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) is suffering a loss of Rs 3 crore per day on account of farmers’ protest at toll plazas in the state. There are 25 toll plazas on national highways in Punjab.

Farmers’ move to further intensify their agitation comes on a day Prime Minister Modi assured them that his government was committed to their welfare and that the three legislations were aimed at giving them alternative markets to boost income.

Without directly referring to the farmers’ agitation, Modi said at the annual meeting of industry body FICCI here that agriculture reforms as part of government efforts are aimed at removing roadblocks, and the new laws will also bring in technology and investment in the sector.

“Farmers have now options to sell their crops in mandis as well as to outside parties,” he said. “While mandis are being modernised, digital platform is also available to farmers to buy and sell their produce.”

These efforts are aimed at raising incomes of farmers, he said. “All these efforts are directed towards improving the farmers’ income so that they become prosperous. When farmers prosper, the country will prosper.”

“After the implementation of recent reforms, farmers will get new markets and new opportunities and they will get the help of technology. The country’s cold storage infrastructure will become modern,” he said.

“From all these, there will be a higher investment in the agriculture sector. The maximum benefit of these reforms would be to small and marginal farmers who earn their living on small plots of land,” the prime minister said.

The Congress said farmers want pro-people governance not flowery speeches and urged the Centre to accede to their demands.

In a tweet, Congress’ chief spokesperson Randeep Surjewala attacked Prime Minister Modi, saying the “whole country is fed up of your enticing lollypops”.

Union Minister Piyush Goyal, meanwhile, said there was an attempt to derail agriculture reforms by Leftists and Maoist elements.

“We now realise that the so-called farmer agitation hardly remains a farmers’ agitation. It has almost got infiltrated by Leftist and Maoist elements, a flavour of which we saw over the last two days when there were extraneous demands to release people who have been put behind bars for anti-national (and) who have been put behind bars for illegal activities,” Goyal, the Minister for Railways, Commerce and Industry and Food and Consumers Affairs, said at the FICCI’s annual meeting.

He, however, did not say if the government had or is planning to take any action against any person belonging to banned outfits seen at the protests.

A delegation of 29 farmers from Haryana also met Agriculture Minister Tomar to extend their support to the new legislations and threatened to stage a protest if those are repealed.

The delegation, led by Bharatiya Kisan Union’s (Mann) Haryana state leader Guni Prakash, submitted a “letter of support” to Tomar on the farm laws passed by Parliament in September and demanded the government to continue with these legislations.

Farmers from different parts of the country, especially Haryana and Punjab, have been camping at various border points of Delhi for over two weeks to demand a repeal of these laws.

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