Farmer leaders after talks on Wednesday. (Photo: Prem Nath Pandey)
In a significant initiative to end farmer protests over the new agriculture laws, which moved from Punjab to the gates of Delhi last November, the Centre Wednesday offered to keep the laws in abeyance for 18 months.
With farmer unions refusing to appear before a Supreme Court-appointed committee of experts, the Centre, during talks with the unions, offered to form a joint committee of government and farmer representatives to address grievances. It proposed that the laws be kept in abeyance for a year-and-a-half or till such time that the proposed committee submits a report.
The two sides agreed to meet again on Friday. Union Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar, who has been leading the government delegation at the talks, said: “We expect to move towards a solution on January 22.”
The Centre made the offer a day after RSS Sarkaryawah (general secretary) Suresh ‘Bhaiyyaji’ Joshi, in an interview to The Indian Express, called for “sensitivity” in dealing with the farmer agitation and said a “middle ground must be found and both sides must work to find a solution”.
Joshi underlined that “it is not good for the health of society for any agitation to run for too long… We just want the agitation (to) end quickly”.
Emerging from the talks, Tomar said: “As you are aware, the Supreme Court has stayed the agriculture reform laws for a short duration. Their implementation will not happen for some time. In the past and even today, we told them that more time is needed to consider the laws in detail, discuss various aspects related to the agitation. And the required time may be six months, one year or one-and-half years.”
“The government is ready to put on hold the implementation of the laws for one, one-and-half years. During this period, the government and farmer representatives shall find a solution. Whatever the solution, it should be taken forward,” he said.
“I am happy. It is the effect of the birth anniversary of Guru Gobind Singh that farmer unions took this proposal very seriously and said they will discuss among themselves, and meet again at noon on January 22 to let us know their decision,” he said.
“I believe the talks are moving in a meaningful direction and we expect to move towards a solution on January 22,” Tomar said.
“As earlier, the farmer unions were firm on their demand for repeal (of the laws) and the government was ready to discuss and amend the provisions of the laws with an open mind and big heart. The meeting was held in a cordial atmosphere. All sides expressed their views and the discussions saw some softening and hardening (naram aur garam) of stand. Several rounds of talks were held,” he said.
Asked if the proposed joint committee will look into the demand for legal guarantee of MSP, Tomar said: “I said aspects related to the protests will be discussed.”
On the January 26 tractor rally planned by the farmers, he said: “Farmers are sitting in the cold and facing problems, and they should end the protest and return home. Government and farmer representatives will find a solution.”
Asked if the government’s dialogue will continue alongside the work of the Supreme Court-appointed committee, Tomar said: “The government is committed to the Supreme Court and will remain so. The committee appointed by the Supreme Court is doing its job, the government too has direct accountability towards farmers… we are taking forward this discussion while discharging our responsibility.”
Meanwhile, the government is all set to make amendments to the Commission for Air Quality Management in National Capital Region and Adjoining Areas Ordinance 2020 to exclude the farmers from its purview.
The Ordinance will be taken up for passage in the two Houses of Parliament when the Budget session begins. The Ordinance, promulgated on October 28, needs to be approved by Parliament in six months.
Section 14 (1) of the air quality Ordinance provides for imprisonment up to five years and fine up to Rs 1 crore or both for acts which contribute to pollution. Farmers had expressed concern that this provision may be used against them over stubble burning.
“The government is ready to make those changes we have committed to farmers on this and the amendments will be brought during the debate and passage of the Bill in Parliament during the Budget session,” an official source said.
On Wednesday, senior ministers and leaders of the BJP including party president J P Nadda had a discussion at Defence Minister Rajnath Singh’s residence on the party’s strategy for the Budget session.
The meeting was attended by Foreign Minister S Jaishankar, Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, Social Justice and Empowerment Minister Thawar Chand Gehlot, Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pralhad Joshi and party whips Rakesh Singh and Shiv Pratap Shukla.
“The leaders discussed all possible issues that could come up during the session. Party leaders are aware that the farmer issue could be a key political point on which the Opposition will try to corner the government,” a party leader said.