New Delhi: The government and farm unions reached some common ground on Wednesday to resolve protesting farmers' concerns over rise in power tariff and penalties for stubble burning, but the two sides remained deadlocked over the main contentious issues of the repeal of three farm laws and a legal guarantee for MSP.
After nearly five hours of the sixth round of negotiations between three union ministers and a 41-member representative group of thousands of farmers protesting on Delhi borders, Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar said at least 50 per cent resolution has been reached with mutual agreement on two out of four items on the agenda and discussions would continue on the remaining two on January 4 at 2pm.
He also hoped that the new year will herald new solutions and asserted that the Modi government has always been sensitive to farmers' issues.
"Discussions on the three farm laws and MSP are not complete and will continue in the next round of talks... We are hopeful that consensus would be reached for resolving the two remaining issues also," Tomar told reporters after the meeting, which saw the two sides breaking the bread but not much ice.
While the three ministers joined the farmer leaders to share their langar (community kitchen) food during the lunch break, the union representatives accepted the beverage offered by the government during the evening tea break.
For the last few meetings, farmer leaders have been arranging their own food and beverages but had so far refused to accept even water offered by the government.
Farmer leaders said the government agreed to their demands for dropping the penal provisions against farmers in an ordinance relating to stubble burning and to put on hold a proposed electricity amendment law.
However, there was no concrete movement on their main demands for repeal of the three farm laws and a legal guarantee for MSP, union leaders said.
The unions, however, have decided to postpone their proposed tractor rally, earlier scheduled for Thursday, till the next round of talks on January 4.
Tomar said talks were held in a cordial atmosphere and the two sides reached an agreement on two issues - one relating to the proposed electricity law and the other about an ordinance on penal provisions for stubble burning.
He hailed the unions for maintaining peace and discipline during their protest but urged them to send the elderly, women and children back to their homes due to the extreme cold weather.
Tomar said the union leaders kept insisting on the repeal of the three farm laws, but the government side tried to explain to them the benefits of the Acts and sought to know specific problems faced by the farmers.
On farmers' demand for a legal guarantee for procurement at Minimum Support Price (MSP), the minister said the government has already said that it is ready to give a written assurance.
"Talks will continue on these two issues," said Tomar, who was accompanied by Food and Railways Minister Piyush Goyal and Minister of State for Commerce Som Parkash at the meeting.
Later, an official statement said the government offered to set up two committees - one to ensure parity between the MSP and the market price and the other on finding alternatives to the farmers' demand for the repeal of the three laws while upholding the constitutional values.
After the meeting, union leader Kalwant Singh Sandhu said Wednesday's talks mostly focussed on electricity and stubble burning, while the next meeting on January 4 would focus on the MSP guarantee and the three farm laws.
Another union leader Prem Singh Bhangu said the tractor rally has been postponed and the meeting was held in a cordial atmosphere.
"They had langar food with us and we also had tea with them," he said.
All India Kisan Sabha leader and CPI(M) polit bureau member Hannan Mollah said, "The discussion has not broken, it is on. Out of four issues on the agenda, two have been addressed and the remaining two - MSP legalisation and repeal of three laws - are to be resolved."
The government during the discussion offered to set up a committee to discuss ways to legalise the MSP and amendments to the three new laws, but we rejected that, he said.
"The government's attitude was soft (sarkar ka ravaiya naram tha). The government said it has agreed to two demands and there are complexities in the rest two. They asked us to send a fresh proposal based on today's discussion," he said.
Asked what would be farmer unions' next proposal, Mollah said, "There is no individual proposal. We will together decide at Singhu border on January 2."
"The tractor march has been postponed till January 4. If the next meeting fails, then we will plan the next course of action," he added.
Rashtriya Kisan Mahasangh's national spokesperson Abhimanyu Kohar said, "The discussion happened in a positive atmosphere. The third and fourth demands have been accepted. But nothing concrete happened on the major two demands, although discussion happened on those issues."
The government asked us to give alternative options but farmers demanded the repeal of the three laws, he said.
"On the MSP issue, Agriculture Minister said it is financially not feasible to make MSP guaranteed legally. However, we told that in 2018 in Madhya Pradesh government versus Anndata Samithi Case, the High Court had ordered that the first auction price placed should be above the MSP.
"We told the government that there has been a loss of Rs 45,000 crore in the last 17 years. There was a long discussion but no consensus could be reached," Kohar said.
During the meeting, the government is believed to have offered to set up a committee for better implementation of the MSP procurement system, but the proposal did not find any favour with the union leaders.
The government had hoped it would be a decisive meeting and the protesting farmers would return from Delhi borders to their respective homes to celebrate the New Year, but farmer leaders insisted they are prepared to continue their agitation till the government agrees to their demands, including repeal of the laws.
Punjab Kisan Union state president Ruldu Singh Mansa said the government was not agreeing to give legal backing for the MSP procurement and has rather offered to set up a committee on options for proper implementation of MSP, but the proposal was rejected.
He further said the government has offered to withdraw the electricity amendment bill and to amend the ordinance to remove the penal provision on farmers in stubble burning cases.
Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) leader Rakesh Tikait also said the government has agreed not to implement the proposed electricity amendment bill and also the ordinance relating to air pollution due to stubble burning.
Farmer leaders also offered 'ardaas' (prayers) at the meeting venue after the tea break, before resuming the talks.
Before the meeting, Parkash, himself an MP from Punjab, had said he was hopeful that it would be a decisive meeting and the government wanted the protesting farmers to return to their respective homes to celebrate the new year.
Previously, Tomar had also said he was hopeful that a solution would emerge before the year 2020 ends.
Some union leaders, however, said that farmers in some parts of the country are being forced to sell crops including paddy below the Minimum Support Price as market rates have fallen and asserted that the agitation will continue till the government agrees to their demands.
The sixth round of talks was originally scheduled for December 9 but it was called off after an informal meeting of Home Minister Shah with some union leaders failed to reach any breakthrough.
The government had, however, followed up Shah's meeting with a draft proposal sent to these farmer unions in which it had suggested 7-8 amendments to the new laws and written assurance on the MSP procurement system. The government has ruled out a repeal of the three agri laws.
Thousands of farmers, mainly from Punjab and Haryana, are protesting at various borders of the national capital for more than a month against these three new laws.
The government has presented these laws as major agriculture reforms aimed at helping farmers and increasing their income, but the protesting unions fear that the new legislations have left them at the mercy of big corporates by weakening the MSP and mandi systems.