Talks deadlocked as protesting farmers rebuff Modi’s resolution

Farmers carry placards at a site of a protest against the newly passed farm bills at Singhu border near Delhi, India, November 28, 2020. REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis/File photo

Talks between Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration and tens of thousands of Indian farmers protesting against a set of new agricultural laws appear to have hit a deadlock with leaders insisting that the laws need to be scrapped.

Both sides are expected to meet again Thursday but any immediate resolution remains unlikely. Initial talks between several senior ministers and protest leaders ended Tuesday with farmers rejecting the government offer of setting up a panel to look into their demands, federal Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar told reporters in New Delhi.

“The protest will continue like this if the government doesn’t repeal the three laws,” said Darshan Pal, a senior leader of the Krantikari Kisan Union from the northern state of Punjab. “We demand that the government should call a special parliament session to repeal the laws.”

Pal said the protests, currently centered around the Indian capital, would spread across the country if the farmers’ views were not heard.

Police were deployed at several border points around capital New Delhi and traffic was cut off as protesters gathered at entry points into the city for a seventh straight day. The farmers say that a set of three new farm-related legislation enacted by the government in September will result in lower incomes and make farming in India harder.

Last week, local police used water cannons and tear gas to prevent the marchers from entering the capital. But as the protesters remained implacable the government was pushed to soften its stand. Over the weekend, Modi defended the new laws and said they would bring prosperity to millions of farmers.

The new laws seek to remove restrictions on marketing farm products and allow cultivators to engage with private companies to sell their crops, which farmers fear will prompt the government to stop making direct purchases at minimum state-set prices. The demonstrations pose no immediate risk to Modi’s government as he has the numbers needed in parliament to defend the laws. But antagonizing farmers — traditionally a powerful electoral bloc — has the potential to dent his popularity in the long term.

The laws were part of a slew of reform legislation that the government rushed through an abbreviated session of parliament in September and were passed despite opposition from within Modi’s ruling coalition. Longtime ally — the Shiromani Akali Dal — from Punjab state ended their support to the government over the legislation.

“These reforms are badly needed so that Indian agriculture becomes more efficient and sustainable. These laws will lead to more diversification of crops, more remuneration and promote export and agro-processing,” said P. K. Joshi, the former director for South Asia at the International Food Policy Research Institute. “Private sector investment has to come into the agriculture sector for its growth.”

The protesting farmers say the new laws will leave them at the mercy of large private corporations without adequate safeguards.

About 800 million people in this country of over 1.3 billion depend directly or indirectly on agriculture, which accounts for 16% of its $2.8 trillion economy.

The tense standoff comes as Modi’s administration is struggling to check the spread of the coronavirus, resolve a tense border standoff with China, revive the worst economic growth in years, and generate jobs in the country.

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