Talks between Punjab farmers, Centre remain inconclusive

Goods trains have not entered Punjab for one and a half months now, except for two days in late October, leading to a shortage of essential goods

The deadlock between the Centre and Punjab’s farmer unions continues, with day long talks on the eve of Diwali ending inconclusively. The impasse has led to the stoppage of goods trains in the State after rail roko protests demanding the repeal of three controversial agricultural reform laws. 

After more than six hours of discussion at Vigyan Bhavan in the capital, Central ministers refused to allow the renewal of goods train services in Punjab, and farmers vowed to continue their protests by observing Saturday as a Black Diwali, and holding a mass agitation in Delhi later this month. However, both sides said they were open to further talks.

“The Railways Minister said unless passenger trains are also allowed to run, goods trains services will not be permitted to resume. This amounts to an economic blockade of an entire State,” said Bharatiya Kisan Union-Ekta president Balbir Singh Rajewal, who was a leader of the farmers delegation, representing 30 protesting unions.

Goods trains have not entered Punjab for one-and-a-half months now, except for two days in late October, leading to a shortage of essential goods, including fertilisers needed for wheat sowing and coal supplies for thermal plants. Farm leaders say they have vacated the tracks, but some protests still continue at stations.

Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar said further discussions were needed, as one meeting could not resolve all the issues. 

“It was assured that the Government of India is always committed to protect the interest of farmers and is always open for discussions for the welfare of farmers. The talks were held in a cordial atmosphere and both sides agreed to continue to hold further discussions,” said an official statement. 

Earlier, Railways Minister Piyush Goyal appealed to farmers to approach the talks with an open heart, and pointed out that people in Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir, Leh and Ladakh were also affected by the disruption in both passenger and goods trains. 

The two Cabinet Ministers, along with Minister of State for Commerce Som Parkash and Railway Board chairman Vinod Kumar Yadav, were present at the meeting.

Farmer leaders had walked out of the previous round of talks a month ago, angry at being fobbed off with a meeting with the Agriculture Secretary. They had demanded a meeting with a group of ministers empowered to negotiate their demand to repeal the three laws.

“We presented our demands to the government and they listened to us, but did not have any answers. We want the laws to be repealed and a new law to be enacted establishing our right to government procurement at minimum support prices. This is not a struggle of Punjab farmers alone, but of farmers across the country,” said Mr. Rajewal. 

The Agriculture Ministry made a presentation at the meeting, showing the increase in procurement over the last six years. Mr. Tomar assured farmers that the MSP regime would not be affected by the reforms, adding that they were meant to provide a wider market for farm produce.

However, the farmer leaders were not convinced.

“The government talks about one nation, one market, but really they have created one nation, two markets — one with the APMC mandis and one without. The only ones who will benefit are big corporates, not small farmers,” said Mr. Rajewal.

Other concerns included the new environment ordinance providing for a ₹1 crore fine and jail time for farmers burning stubble, as well as the Electricity Bill, 2020 which could end power subsidies for farmers.

Farmers will continue protests at toll plazas, highways, retail outlets and BJP leaders’ homes in Punjab, observing a ‘Black Diwali Day’ on Saturday. 

On November 18, unions are expected to meet in Chandigarh to decide their future course of action. Despite the denial of police permission, they plan to hold a Dilli Chalo protest on November 26 and 27, with thousands of farmers from Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh expected to arrive in the capital with tractors for an agitation.

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