Centre ready for talks, but won't repeal agri laws; farmers threaten to block rail despite cold and COVID-19

As the farmers' protest entered the 15th day, Union Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar said that the Centre remains open to have dialogue with farmers, but the farmers' demand for withdrawing the legislations is 'not acceptable'

FP Staff December 10, 2020 21:33:27 IST
Centre ready for talks, but won't repeal agri laws; farmers threaten to block rail despite cold and COVID-19

File photo of Union agriculture minister Narendra Singh Tomar

As the farmers' protest entered the 15th day, Union Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar Thurday appealed to the protesting farmers to withdraw their agitation while indicating that the Centre would not withdraw the three contentious farm laws enacted in September this year.

"The government is ready to consider with an open mind any provision in the new laws where farmers have any issues and we want to clarify all their apprehensions,” Tomar said at a press conference in Delhi.

"We kept waiting for suggestions from farmers' leaders to address their concerns, but they are stuck on the repeal of laws," he said.

"I want to appeal to farmers to give our proposal a thought. Government is ready for dialogue whenever you wish," he added.

Tomar said the government has always been ready for dialogue with farmers and it remains so, but the farmers' continued demand for withdrawing the legislations was "not acceptable".

Union minister Piyush Goyal, who was also present at the briefing, reiterated the appeal for the farmers to withdraw their protest, while asserting that "Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government was, is, and always will be committed to the farmers' causes".

"We are also conscious that many farmers across the country have supported the laws. The recent poll results show that farmers have reposed their faith in the Modi government," Goyal claimed.

Since country is fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, Goyal also "earnestly" appealed to farmers and farmers' unions to stop the protest and continue talks with Centre.

He also said that the government is very open and flexible to find an amicable solution for the benefit of India's farmers.

Reacting to the government's statement, farm leaders Thursday told NDTV that they too were ready for talks, but there was no point in discussing the proposal sent by the government.

Reiterating their demand to repeal the three farm laws, the farmers representatives on Thursday also said they they will soon block railway tracks. An announcement in this regard would be made soon, they told ANI.

ANI also quoted Rakesh Tikait, spokesperson of the Bharatiya Kisan Union, as saying, "If Centre was agreeing to 12 of our demands out of 15, that means the bills are not right, then why not destroy them. We had demanded one law on MSP but they brought 3 bills through the ordinance... Our protests will continue peacefully."

Additionally, SAD chief Sukhbir Singh Badal condemned the Centre's stand and said that the government has "proved" that it intends "to fight against" the farmers. The SAD, which was one of the BJP's oldest allies in the NDA, walked out of the alliance when the bills were introduced in the Parliament.

The Centre' press briefing comes a day after farmers' leaders rejected the government's proposal promising a written assurance on Minimum Support Price (MSP) and amending certain portions of two of the three contentious farm laws and announced that they will intensify their agitation.

The farmer leaders had said on Wednesday that there was nothing new in the government proposal and they will continue their protest. The proposal was sent to farmers groups after a meeting between 13 farmers leaders and Union Home Minister Amit Shah late on Tuesday night remained inconclusive.

The Centre has maintained that the three farm laws will ensure that middlemen are removed from the process which will give farmers autonomy and the freedom to sell anywhere in the country and termed them as major reforms in the agriculture sector.

However, farmers who have been protesting at various borders of the National Capital for over two weeks, have expressed apprehension that the new laws would pave the way for eliminating the safety cushion of MSP and do away with the APMC-regualted mandis, leaving them at the mercy of big corporates. The issues have not been resolved despite five rounds of talks between the unions and the Centre.

At Thursday's briefing, Goyal reiterated that the Centre's stand that laws were brought in to provide farmers with more choices to expand their business and termed as completely erroneous the concerns that farmers would be forced to sell their produce in private markets.

"There were some concerns that farmers will be forced to sell their produce in private market. This is completely erroneous, there is absolutely no provision in the law which brings an element of compulsion on any farmer," he added.

Goyal asserted that the new laws do not affect the Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC)and that would remain protected.

Farmers are only being given an additional option to sell their produce at private mandis, he said, adding that the government was willing to ensure that the private markets are taxed at APMC levels to ensure a level trading field.

On the issue of Minimun Support Price (MSP), the ministers said that the "an absolute wrong impression" was being created and insisted that government will continue procurement at MSP rates and was willing to give an assurance to this regard in writing.

Responding to farmers' concerns that their land could be occupied by industrialists under the new laws, Tomar claimed that "contract farming has been going on for long in Gujarat, Maharashtra, Haryana, Punjab, Karnataka but there has never been such an experience".

"Still, we have already made provision in the Act that agreement under these laws will only be between processors and farmers' produce. There is no provision for any lease or agreement over farmers' land," Tomar added.

Railways minister Goyal claimed that the legislations have been formulated taking care that farmers have the upper hand while entering into agreements and that their laws are secured.

“All agreements under this law are in the favour of farmers. If the prices rise after a farmer has entered into an agreement and he can get a better price, he is free to go out of a contract into anyone. He would only be required to pay the advance amount he might have taken without any penalty and in a reasonable time.

“Similarly, if the price were to fall, the trader doesn't have the option to wriggle out. He will be bound by the contract and will be bound to pay contracted price to the farmer even if the market price goes down,” Goyal added.

“If the trader does not buy at the contracted price, there is a provision to include a dispute redressal mechanism in the contract. Otherwise the local SDM has to resolve the dispute within 30 days compulsorily,” the railways minister said.

On the issue of the electricity amendment act, the ministers said that amended law has provisions for the state governments to continue giving subsidies to discoms.

Seeking to counter objections over the Centre's powers to make laws on the subject of agriculture, Goyal said that the Centre was empowered to make laws on the issue of trade under the concurrent list.

As per a report in Indian Express, Tomar said: "During the talks, many said that farm laws are invalid as agriculture is state subject and Centre can't frame these laws. We clarified, we have the right to make laws on trade and explained it to them."

The ministers also touched upon the subject of dispute resolution mechanism in the farm laws.

Addressing the farmers' concerns over the Sub-divisional magistrate (SDM) being appointed as one of the nodal officials for grievance redressal under the new farm laws, Tomar said that the provision had been brought in as the SDM is the "closest magisterial official" that the farmers can approach with their complaints directly.

Some farmers have raised the concern that the SDM may not give decision in favour of farmers or may be under pressure from the trader, said Goyal, adding that “the government was willing to provide the option for the farmer to choose any available law for dispute resolution".

Thus the farmers choice to access a court of law or dispute redressal mechanism will not be hindered, the minister added.

On the Air Quality Management of NCR Ordinance, 2020, Goyal said that the government is willing to discuss with the farmers ways to protect them and ensure that they won't have to bear high penalties or criminal proceedings be taken agains them under it.

“The high penalties are for largely meant for industries and industrial pollution,” said Goyal.

Praising the Narendra Modi government for its work done for farmers, Tomar slammed the Opposition for extending support to the protest.

"We are ready for further discussions. The entire country is witness to the fact that the Swaminathan Committee reports recommendation to increase the MSP by 1.5 times was not implemented for a long time. In spite of the financial burden Prime Minister Narendra Modi increased the MSP and the entire country is drawing its benefits," he said.

He added that the new laws will provide the farmers with foolproof grievance redressal through the SDM and added that the farmers will find a safety net in the new laws.

When asked if the thre farm laws would be repealed, Tomar said that any law cannot be entirely defective and added that the government was ready to discuss provisions that may adversely affect farmers.

Farmers to block rail tracks

According to news agency PTI, farmer leader Balbir Singh Rajewal, speaking to media at the Singhu border, said that the Centre has admitted that laws have been made for traders.

“If agriculture is a state subject, Central govt does not have right to make laws on it,” the news agency quoted Rajewal as saying.

The farmers also threatened to block railway tracks, as per news agency ANI.

“We'd given an ultimatum till 10 December that if the prime minister doesn't listen to us and doesn't repeal laws, we'll block railway tracks. It was decided in today's meeting that all the people of India will take to the tracks. Sanyukt Kisan Manch will fix a date and announce,” said Boota Singh.

"Five rounds of talks have already been held with the government, but they remained inconclusive. So far, the government has not sent us any invitation for another round of talks. If government sends us proposal for a meeting, we will decide it in our meeting," another farmer leader Shiv Kumar Kakka told PTI.

Asked about the solution to the ongoing standoff with the government, Kakka said, "only God knows".

"We are facing a lot of difficulties due to cold weather and the COVID-19 pandemic, but despite this, we will continue our protest until our demands are met," Kakka added.

BJP leaders condemn attack on JP Nadda

Tomar started Thursday's briefing condemning the attack on a convoy of BJP president JP Nadda in West Bengal on Thursday.

"We have gathered here to address different issues, but my colleagues and I condemn the attack on JP Nadda in Bengal today. Differences can't be met by violence," he said.

"Such incidents are rising, this has reached to such an extent that stone pelting is being done on the convoy of BJP national president who has been provided security. This is being ignored by the state govt. We condemn this attack," he added.

Earlier in the day, a political row had broken out after BJP president JP Nadda came under attack allegedly by TMC goons in West Bengal.

With inputs from agencies

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