Indian farm leaders reject Amit Shah’s offer; set fresh terms for talks

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Farmers protesting at Delhi border.

Indian farm leaders spearheading the farmers’ agitation have set fresh terms for talks with the Union government. They demand the Centre name and authorise a Cabinet committee or a group of ministers for future discussions, the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee (AIKSCC) said on Sunday.

Nearly 30 Indian farm leaders of various organisations met on Sunday to discuss home minister Amit Shah’s offer to advance the date for the next round of talks scheduled for December 3.

Home secretary Ajay Bhalla had on November 28 written a letter addressed to Darshan Pal Singh, the Punjab chief of the Krantikari Kisan Union, along with 31 organisations, reiterating the home minister’s offer for early talks.

No talks with home ministry

The AIKSCC said the home ministry should not lead the discussions as agriculture was outside its jurisdiction. “We have rejected the offer for talks with the home ministry. The home ministry has nothing to do with farmers or agriculture,” said Darshan Pal.

In a reply to the home secretary’s invitation, the Indian farm leaders set new conditions for the next round of talks, calling for involvement at the “highest political level”.

“The Prime Minister takes all decisions in the country. Although Union ministers have participated in the last round of talks, we are not sure if they are empowered to take any decisions. We want a Cabinet committee or a ministers’ group duly authorised or notified by the highest political level for further discussions,” said Avik Saha, the AIKSCC’s national secretary.

PM Modi tries to allay farmers’ fear

Meanwhile, the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi sought to allay farmers’ concerns on Sunday.  In his monthly radio address Modi said, “From these reforms, farmers will get new rights and opportunities.”

But one Indian farm union leader said many protesters were demanding that the government withdraw the laws.

Sunday is the fourth day since farmers from Punjab, Haryana, Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh among other neighbouring states set off on their “Dilli chalo” (march to Delhi) campaign to protest a set of laws to liberalise farm trade and open up agricultural markets in the country.

Saha said during the anti-corruption agitation led by Anna Hazare in 2013, a Cabinet panel had been named to carry out negotiations with those leading the protests. “We want a similar mechanism for talks, because sometimes talks are led by the food and agriculture ministers and sometimes they seem to be led by the home ministry,” Saha said.

The latest stand of the farmers could delay the next round of talks with the government to resolve the politically challenging agitation.

Govt invokes Home Ministry to act

“The AIKSCC has demanded that the government should stop dealing with the issue from the prism of intelligence agencies and home ministry. The government got these statutes rammed through Parliament and farmers expect a response that is political, from the highest levels of the government. Its attempt to invoke the Home Ministry only acts as a threat to farmers, rather than arouse confidence in its sincerity,” the AIKCC said in a statement.

Thousands of farmers have clashed with police, travelling toward the national Capital, where they are holding protests against three farm laws approved by Parliament in September.

Cultivators on tractors and trucks, flung police barricades into a river near Ambala district as they advanced to the national capital as police stopped them with tear gas and water cannons. The Union home ministry on Friday allowed farmers to assemble at the capital’s Burari grounds and made a fresh offer for talks.

“The farmers clearly want to be sure that ministers who would be negotiating with them should be authorised to take decisions. That seems to be the message,” said political analyst Sanjay Kukreti of the Osmania University.

Revoke contentious laws: Farmers

Farmers want the Narendra Modi government to revoke three contentious laws approved by Parliament in September. The laws essentially change the way India’s farmers do business by creating free markets, as opposed to a network of decades-old, government-controlled agricultural markets.

Together, the 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, which earlier only government-approved agents could, and lay down new rules for contract farming.

The Indian farm leaders say the reforms would make the farmers vulnerable to exploitation by big corporations, erode their bargaining power and weaken the government’s procurement system, whereby the government buys staples, such as wheat and rice, at guaranteed prices.

Agriculture minister Narendra Singh Tomar and railways, food and consumer affairs minister Piyush Goyal had held day-long negotiations with farmers on November 13. The discussions were inconclusive, but both sides had agreed to continue negotiations in the future.

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