Union Ministers have been holding village-level meetings in Punjab, both person and virtually.
One and a half months after the Centre passed three controversial farm reform laws, Punjab’s farmer unions have refused to budge from their opposition, despite a goods train shutdown that is now starting to pinch the State’s industry and general population as well as farmers themselves. In fact, unions insist they will go ahead with their plan to gherao Delhi by the end of the month, bringing the pressure to the national capital.
Although the unions and the Centre were both at pains to emphasise that the talks, which ended inconclusively on the eve of Diwali, have not collapsed and will continue, there are limited compromise options on the negotiating table to resolve the impasse.
After a seven-hour meeting on Friday, Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar acknowledged as much, telling journalists that there was a “considerable gap” between the government’s and farmer’s stances. Several farmer leaders said the Ministers only made their own presentation, but had no response to the farmers’ demands. When the demand of a legal guarantee for minimum support prices (MSP) was raised, there was complete silence in the room for three minutes, said one farmer leader.
“At the end of the meeting, it was agreed upon by both sides not to go out and publicly say that the talks have failed. But in reality, there was absolutely no progress. But both sides, for different reasons, want to be seen as continuing with the dialogue,” said one farmer leader who did not wish to be named.
Centre ups the ante
For the ruling BJP at the Centre, it is important not to be seen as anti-farmer. Union Ministers have been holding village-level meetings in Punjab, both person and virtually, and daily presenting data to show that the levels of procurement have never been higher. The Centre also upped the ante by inviting the unions to meet with three senior Ministers, a month after farmers’ representatives walked out of a meeting with the Agriculture Secretary.
For the union leaders, they want to give their foot-soldiers, still carrying on the protest back home, a sense of some activity and movement, at a time when there are high levels of frustration that their concerns are not being heard at all. Hence, the insistence on going ahead with the march to Delhi with their tractors, despite the Delhi police denying permission for a rally.
In private, some farmer leaders say that they want the government to acknowledge publicly that they had not consulted farmers before bringing out the new legislation and to state that, at least in principle, they are willing to reconsider. This would be a requisite first step to proceed with negotiations.
The train blockade could well be a double-edged sword for both sides. The Railways has made it clear that freight movement to Punjab will not be started unless passenger trains are permitted to ply as well. Farmer unions have so far refused to give up that leverage.
Although there is strong public support for the protest within Punjab, businessmen have started to get antsy as dwindling coal supplies threaten the State’s thermal plants, while essential goods and raw materials face shortages as well. Farmers themselves are facing difficulties as fertilizers needed for sowing wheat in the coming rabi season are among the goods affected by the rail disruptions. This is precisely why most farmers groups ended their rail roko protest three weeks ago, clearing protesters from tracks and later, platforms as well.
However, the Centre must consider that the State is also the country’s breadbasket, with almost 38% of India’s wheat and a quarter of its rice grown by Punjab’s farmers. If the rabi crop is affected, it is not only the protesting farmers who will suffer. During the pandemic, the Centre has hailed the farm sector as the one bright light of the economy, continuing to produce record output even as other sectors slumped. In that context, Punjab’s farmers cannot be ignored, and their protest cannot be allowed to spark a wider movement turning the country’s farmers against the BJP.
There is also a danger that the rail blockade is seen as a vendetta directed at Punjab alone, stirring underlying feelings of discrimination and alienation that have long been kept at bay. Another worry is that the union territories of Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh are also dependent on the trains that run through Punjab.
At this point, the Centre and the farmers are both pointing fingers of blame at each other for the situation, but the sway of public opinion is fickle, and it remains to be seen who blinks first.