India’s gov’t, farmers to hold talks as protests continue

India’s gov’t, farmers to hold talks as protests continue

India’s government has invited protesting farmers for talks, as tens of thousands of people continue to camp outside the capital, New Delhi, over new agriculture laws that grain producers fear could put an end to minimum prices they have been guaranteed by the government, leaving them at the mercy of private buyers.

“We are presenting five demands. The three new farm laws should be withdrawn,” Jigender Singh from Bhartiya Kisan Ekta Union, told Al Jazeera.

“The law about electricity usage should be withdrawn. The NGT [National Green Tribunal] rule pertaining to crop burning which has a hefty fine, should also be withdrawn,” Jigender, who will be participate in the talks, said, referring to the burning of the stubble by farmers in northern Punjab and Haryana states linked to pollution in Delhi.

The farmers’ leader also said that they will press the government to legally define the MSP [Minimum Support Price – the price at which the government buys farm produce] framework for pricing. They fear exploitation by corporations who might further push down prices.

“We will primarily listen to what the government has to say,” he said.

Jagmohan Singh, another farmers’ leader from Bhartiya Kisan Ekta Union, confirmed to Al Jazeera that a 35-member delegation from various farmer organisations across the country will join the talks at 3pm local time.

Home Minister Amit Shah and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh will join Agriculture and Farmers Welfare Minister Narendra Singh Tomar for the talks, according to local media reports.

Protests rattle Modi government

The government had earlier invited farmers for talks on Thursday but agreed to meet on Tuesday due to cold weather and the coronavirus pandemic, Agriculture and Farmers Welfare Minister Tomar said.

The enormous protests that entered their fifth day on Tuesday have rattled the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has resisted calls for the repeal of farm reforms, saying growers were being misled and that new laws would benefit them.

The government is seeking to allay concerns that the Minimum Support Price (MSP) will be abolished [Manish Swarup/AP Photo]The government is seeking to allay concerns that the Minimum Support Price (MSP) will be abolished. It says that private investment is required to revitalise the agriculture sector, which employs more than half of India’s 1.3 billion people. The sector contributes nearly 15 percent to the country’s $2.9 trillion economy.

Modi insists the reforms are in the farmers’ interests.

During a rally on Monday, Modi dismissed the concerns raised by farmers and blamed opposition parties for spreading rumours.

“The farmers are being misled on these historic agriculture reform laws by the same people who for decades have misled them,” Modi said, referencing opposition parties who have called the laws anti-farmer and corporate. “Our intentions are as holy as the water of river Ganga.”

Rahul Gandhi, the leader of the main opposition Congress party, accused Modi of crony capitalism and said the laws would benefit corporations.

“Our farmers are standing up against the black laws and have reached Delhi leaving their farms and families behind. Do you want to stand with them or with Modi’s capitalist friends?” Gandhi said in a tweet.

The protests have lasted nearly two months in Punjab and Haryana states but on Thursday gained national attention when thousands of farmers clashed with police who used tear gas, water cannon and baton charges against them as they tried to enter India’s capital.

‘Bread baskets of India’

Home Minister Shah pressed for talks on Saturday but said that farmers would have to move their protests to a government-designated venue in New Delhi and stop blocking highways. The farmers rejected the offer and said they would continue camping out on highways until the laws are withdrawn.

Farmers shout slogans near a police road block stopping farmers from marching to New Delhi to protest against the central government’s recent agricultural reforms at the Delhi-Uttar Pradesh border in Ghazipur [Sajjad Hussain/AFP]“We are at one of the two national highways that are completely closed coming into Delhi, because tens of thousands of farmers are camped out here with hundreds of vehicles,” Al Jazeera’s Elizabeth Puranam, reporting from New Delhi, said. “Because of this, there is a huge disruption coming into the Indian capital.”

Modi’s ministers are scrambling to find ways to assuage their anger. Farmers make up an influential voting bloc across India, particularly in states such as Punjab and Haryana – known as bread baskets of India.

On Monday, Shah met the farmers’ welfare minister, Singh Tomar, for the second time in less than 24 hours after farm organisations rejected the government’s conditional invitation for talks.

Many farmers are prepared for a long haul and have brought food and bedding in their tractors and trucks and say they will continue their protests.

“The government has become a slave of the corporates. They want to turn us into their slaves as well,” said farmer Sukhwinder Singh Sabhra.

Bilal Kuchay contributed to the report from New Delhi