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Eight hours later, farmers, govt agree to ‘talk on’; Punjab waits for trains

During the meeting, both the sides tried to bring a common ground to restore the rail services in Punjab, which have been suspended since September 24, when farmers started their “rail roko” agitation against the central laws.

Written by Harikishan Sharma , Avishek G Dastidar | New Delhi |
Updated: November 14, 2020 10:13:20 am
farmers talks with centre, farm bills, narendra singh Tomar, Farmer centre meet, Farm Bills 2020, farmers meet with centre, farmers protest, indian expressPunjab farmers during the discussion session with Centre. (Photo: Twitter/Narendra Singh Tomar)

THE talks between the government and representatives of farmer unions remained inconclusive on Friday, with both sides refusing to budge from their respective stands but agreeing to continue discussions. The farmer organisations insisted that the new farm laws be repealed and legal backing be provided for the minimum support price (MSP) mechanism. There was no breakthrough over the start of train services to Punjab either.

The meeting between 40-50 representatives of farmer unions and three Union ministers — Minister of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare Narendra Singh Tomar, Railway Minister Piyush Goyal and Minister of State for Commerce & Industry Som Prakash — lasted nearly eight hours, from around 10.30 am to 6 pm. Tomar later admitted to the media that a “considerable gap” remained between what the farmers wanted and the government’s stand.

According to sources, the farmer representatives also raised the issue of “step motherly treatment” towards Punjab, which has been at the forefront of the protests against the new laws. All railway services to the state, including goods trains, have been halted for more than a month, affecting the supply of essentials.

The representatives were particularly concerned over the changes to laws bypassing the existing Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMCs) or mandis.

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During the meeting, Agriculture Ministry officials made a presentation listing all the measures taken by the government to raise farmers’ incomes, and assured that there would be no change in procurement of farm produce at MSP. Details regarding such procurement were also shared.

Railway Board Chairman Vinod Kumar Yadav, who was present at the meeting, told the farmer leaders that people with train tickets for Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir were facing problems. According to sources, the farmer leaders objected to Yadav’s remarks, saying they wanted a discussion with politicians and not officials.

A source said, “It does not look like we will be able to run trains immediately, even though we are ready.”

Sources at the Centre said they wanted the Punjab government’s assurance on “unhindered” train movement to resume services, not just the word of farmers. “Neither in the meeting nor earlier did the state government give us an assurance that train services could resume uninterrupted,” a top source in the Railway Ministry told The Indian Express. However, the Punjab government has been saying that the farmers are not obstructing the railway tracks any more.

Also Read | Punjab: Rights group that supported farmers’ struggle raises questions after cops visit its office-bearers

Speaking to the media after the meeting, Tomar said, “There were talks for a long time. The talks were fruitful, held in a cordial atmosphere. Unke jo mudde thhe, un par sarakaar ke vichaar aur unke muddon mein nishchit roop se kaafi doori thi (Certainly, there is a considerable gap between what they want and the government’s stand). However, we said that talks will continue, and assured them that the new farm laws will not affect either the MSP or APMCs. Punjab will continue to have both.”

Tomar added, “This time, the procurement of kharif crops has been many times more than earlier, and much more in Punjab. Therefore, one should not have doubts and mistrust.”

A statement issued by the Agriculture Ministry said the farmer representatives were briefed about “the reforms made in the agriculture sector to empower the farmers”, including measures under AatmaNirbhar Bharat, and told that agriculture was “the top priority for the government of India to boost the rural economy”. The statement said, “The new farm Acts would not only provide freedom of choice to the farmers to sell their produce at remunerative prices but also safeguard the interests of farmers.”

Train services in Punjab remain suspended since September 24, with the Railways citing “rail roko” agitations against the farm laws. The Railways has refused to resume goods trains either, saying it would either operate both freight and passenger trains or none at all.

The Union Food Secretary, who is holding additional charge of the Agriculture Ministry, had on November 10 invited the farmer organisations for a meeting with Tomar and Goyal.

A meeting held last month by Agriculture Secretary Sanjay Agarwal with them had ended on a stormy note with the farmer leaders walking out, demanding the presence of Tomar.

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