NEW DELHI: Virtually ruling out repealing of new farm laws, the government on Thursday asked farmer groups to consider its proposals for amending the Acts to address their concerns and said it is open to discussing its offer further whenever the unions want, but protesters remained defiant and threatened to block railway tracks too in addition to highways.
As the issue remained deadlocked with both sides sticking to their respective positions, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while laying the foundation stone for a new Parliament building, invoked Guru Nanak to underscore the importance of dialogue and noted that the Sikh Guru had said that interaction should continue till eternity.
A day after protesting farmers rejected the government's offer for a written assurance on Minimum Support Price (MSP) and amend few provisions in the new farm laws, Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar said at a press conference that union leaders must consider the proposals and said he is ready for further discussions with them, but left it to the farmer groups to propose a date for the next round of talks.
At least five rounds of formal talks have taken place between the central government and representatives of thousands of farmers, mainly from Punjab and Haryana, protesting on various borders of the national capital for about two weeks, but the deadlock has continued with the unions sticking to their main demand for the repeal of the three contentious laws and repeatedly rejecting the Centre's offer to make some changes in law and give written assurances or clarifications on few issues such as MSP and mandi systems.
Addressing reporters along with Food, Railways and Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal, Tomar said he is still hopeful of a resolution.
"The government is keen and ready for further discussions with protesting farmers...To clear their apprehensions, we have sent our proposal to farmer unions. I want to urge them to fix a date for discussion as early as possible. If they have any issue, the government is ready for discussion," the agriculture minister said.
Tomar said it was not proper on the part of unions to announce the next stage of agitation when talks were continuing and urged them to return to the discussion table.
"We gave our proposals to farmers after meeting them and therefore we urge them to consider those. If they want to discuss those proposals also, we are ready for that too," he said.
When asked whether there was some other force behind the protest, Tomar did not give any direct reply and said: "Media's eyes are sharp and we will leave to it to find out."
"The press has to explore and use your investigation skills to find out," Goyal said to a similar question.
"We believe that the farmers had certain issues. We respect farmers came and discussed with us. We tried to address the issues that came up during the course of discussion. If there are other issues which are to be discussed or need clarification on the current proposal, we are ready for that. Whether there is any other reason holding them back, we will leave that to your wise counsel," he added.
Rejecting the government's proposal, the farmer unions had on Wednesday said they will intensify their agitation and start blocking all highways linking the national capital as there was nothing new in the offer.
After the press conference of the ministers, farmer leaders on Thursday threatened to block railway tracks also if the government does not repeal the three laws, which they claim were aimed at benefitting corporates by weakening the mandi system and the minimum support price (MSP) regime for procurement of farm produce.
When asked whether the government would consider a new bill on the MSP system, Tomar said the new laws do not impact the MSP system and that will continue.
At the same media briefing, Goyal said, "We appeal our farmer brothers and sisters and the union leaders to end their protest and engage in dialogue with the government to resolve their issues."
He said the government is very open and flexible to find an amicable solution for the benefit of India's farmers.
"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.
"We kept waiting for suggestions from farmers' leaders to address their concerns, but they are stuck on the repeal of laws," he said, while virtually ruling out conceding to the key demand with which thousands of farmers are protesting.
"Their demand was the repeal of the laws. But the government's stand was to discuss openly on provisions on which they have any objections. There is no ego involved with the government. We have no issue in discussing with unions and to find a solution," Tomar said when asked what outcome can be reached if nothing has happened in five rounds of talks and farmers are sticking to one key demand.
Tomar said the government has always been ready for dialogue with farmers and it remains so.
"We are concerned about the farmers protesting in cold weather and during the prevailing COVID-19 pandemic. Farmers' unions should consider the government's proposal at the earliest and then we can mutually decide on the next meeting if required," the minister said.
Asked for the stand of the unions on comments by the two ministers, farmer leader Shiv Kumar Kakka told PTI, "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 the government sends us a proposal for a meeting, we will decide it in our meeting," he said.
Asked what can be the solution to the ongoing standoff with the government, Kakka said, "Only God knows."
"We are facing a lot of difficulties due to the cold weather and COVID-19 pandemic, but despite this, we will continue our protest until our demands are met," Kakka said.
Besides a written assurance on continuing the MSP system, the government has also proposed to make necessary amendments on at least seven issues, including one to allay fears about the weakening of the mandi system.
Tomar, who along with Goyal had met senior party leader and Union Home Minister Amit Shah on Wednesday night, said the government is ready to provide all necessary clarifications on their concerns about the new farm laws enacted in September, which he said were passed after detailed discussions in Parliament.
Goyal said the new laws do not affect the APMC and that would remain protected.
Farmers are only being given an additional option to sell their produce at private mandis.
Tomar said the three farm laws and various schemes such as PM-KISAN announced in the last six years are part of the Modi government's commitment to make agriculture profitable for farmers and ensure their income double by 2022.
The farm laws are especially beneficial to small and marginal growers, who comprise of 86 per cent of the total farm population in the country, he said.
Shah had also met a group of farmer leaders on Tuesday night, but no breakthrough could be reached after nearly four hours of discussions that continued till around midnight, but it was decided at that meeting that the government would send a written proposal to the unions.
The sixth round of talks between the government and farm union leaders, which was scheduled for Wednesday morning, was also cancelled.
In its proposal, the government has said it is ready to consider with an open heart the objections which farmers have on the new farm laws.
On concerns that farmers may be duped as anyone having just a pan card is allowed to trade outside APMC mandis, the government said to rule out such apprehensions, the state governments can be given the power to register such traders and make rules keeping in mind the local situation of farmers.
The government also said it is is open to making an amendment to provide for an appeal in civil courts.
Currently, the dispute resolution is at the SDM level.
The ministers also allayed concerns that big corporates will take over farmlands or their land can be attached, saying the existing laws have necessary safeguards, but further clarity can be added if required.
The government further said there won't be any change in the existing system of electricity bill payment for farmers due to the proposed Electricity Amendment Bill 2020.
On farmers' demand to scrap the Air Quality Management of NCR Ordinance 2020, under which there is the provision of penalty for stubble burning, the government said it is ready to find an appropriate solution.
Regarding farmers' demand to provide registration of farming contracts, the government said till state governments make an arrangement for registration, an appropriate facility will be provided at the SDM office wherein a copy of the contract can be submitted 30 days after its signing.
On Constitutional validity of farm laws, the ministers said it has the power under Entry 33 of the Concurrent List to pass laws on contract farming and intra- and inter-state trade, and prohibit states from imposing fees/cess outside APMC areas.
It had followed legal provisions while enacting the laws and earlier for bringing ordinances, the ministers said.