Crucial talks between the Union government and protesting farm unions could resume in a few weeks after nearly a year of pause.
On Saturday, the Samyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM), a platform of over 40 farm unions, named a five-member committee to lead negotiations “in case the government sends a formal invitation for discussions”, a farm leader said.
“Talks are possible soon but it all depends on when the government send its invitation,” Hannan Mollah, who is on the SKM’s committee for presumptive negotiations, said.
The Union government is indirectly talking to some farm leaders to prepare the ground for dialogue over a slew of remaining demands by cultivators. On November 29, the Centre repealed three contentious agricultural-reform laws farmers had been protesting against since over a year ago.
Mollah said the farmers’ platform had set up a five-member panel acceding to a request by the Centre to keep the team of negotiators small. He said home minister Amit Shah had telephonic conversations with farm leaders Balbir Singh Rajewal and Yudhvir Singh. “This not good enough. We need a formal dialogue to start soon,” he said.
The Union government hasn’t announced a date for the two sides to get back on the table and the SKM said it would respond only when an official invitation is extended to the farmers by the Centre.
After 11 rounds of talks, the Centre had withdrawn from the dialogue process on January 22 this year after a deadlock. At that time, the Union government witnessed sweeping calls by farm unions to scrap the laws. In a rare climbdown, Prime Minister Narendra Modi on November 19 said his government would abandon the legislation at the heart of massive protests by tens of thousands of farmers.
The agricultural laws scrapped by the Modi government allowed private traders and supermarket chains to buy farm produce outside of tightly regulated state-run agricultural markets. Farmers say this would have left them at the mercy of large corporations.
The laws also allowed traders to stockpile large quantities of farm produce for future sale and laid down a national framework for contract farming based on written agreements.
The farmers said the government would have to cancel all criminal cases registered against protesting farmers in various states, especially Haryana, a major arena of the farm protests.
In separate talks between Haryana chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar and a team of farm leaders, that included Gurnam Singh Chaduni and Inderjit Singh, the Haryana government on Friday, for the first time, acknowledged that it was prepared to take cases.
“The Haryana chief minister said cases would be withdrawn but he did not even in principle accept our demand of monetary compensation to families of farmers who lost their lives,” Inderjit said.
The two sides – the Haryana government and the farm leaders led by Charuni – could not agree on the number of cases to be withdrawn. Farm unions say 45,000 protesting farmers had been named as accused in various police complaints, while the government put the figure at 32,000.
“(The) Samyukt Kisan Morcha held a crucial meeting today to discuss pending demands of the farmers’ movement and the lack of a formal response from the Government of India. It was decided unanimously that the farmers’ agitation will continue until formal and satisfactory responses are obtained from the Government of India,” the SKM said in a release.
Although the Union government has cancelled three farm laws, which farmers argue were meant to benefit large corporations and supermarket chains at the expense of cultivators, a slew of demands is yet to be resolved.
Bringing law to guarantee minimum prices for farm produce is a top pending demand. Besides, farm unions also want the cancelling of the Electricity Amendment Bill 2020/2021, which proposes to replace subsidized agricultural power with direct cash benefits.
The SKM also wants section 15 of law on pollution in the national capital region deleted. The section empowers authorities to fine farmers for burning crop residue, a major cause of air pollution.
The farmers also want the withdrawal of all cases slapped on protesting farmers in states such as Delhi, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Chandigarh, Maharashtra and Rajasthan.
They also want a parcel of land to erect a memorial for 708 farmers who lost their lives during their year-long agitation and their families rehabilitated with compensation.
The SKM in its statement on Friday also demanded the arrest and sacking of Union minister Ajay Mishra Teni, whose son has been arrested for allegedly ramming a car into a group of farmers in Uttar Pradesh’s Lakhimpur Kheri.
The farmers’ platform said the five-member committee will also decide on state-level teams that might have to work along with some state governments should there be a requirement. The SKM’s leaders said they awaited a response from the Centre and would meet next on December 7.