Hope and Scepticism: The farmers and the Centre go into their fifth round of talks tomorrow. Will they make any headway?

While emotions still run high, there is a toning down of rhetoric and cautious optimism in some quarters, as the fifth round of talks between the central government and the protesting farmers is scheduled for tomorrow, December 5. Meanwhile, Delhi continues to be locked in.

Pankaja Srinivasan
| Updated: December 4th, 2020

The mood at Tikri on Delhi-Haryana border, west Delhi, remains electric. Resonating voices boom from the loudspeakers as impassioned speeches are made on five different stages, even as children shout and run about and there is a fresh arrival of more farmers and their families. There is also news of farmers from Wardha district in Maharashtra, setting off for Delhi on their motorcycles to lend support to the agitation.

Farmers in their colourful turbans and shawl and dupatta-covered heads, some sitting on the ground, others on chairs, listen carefully, in between shouting out their approval to what is being said. Another farmer sits on the side, quietly noting down something in a notebook, impervious to the noise surrounding her.

Photo: Harinder Bindu, Tikri.

The scene is very similar at Singhu, on the north west of Delhi, where the National Highway 1 is transformed into one large settlement of villagers who bustle about singing, calling out to neighbouring groups of farmers, cutting vegetables, cooking and serving tea. It is cold, there are not enough toilets and thousands of people are concentrated in a limited area, some even bathing and defecating outdoors, but they show no signs of backing down from the protests. “We have called for a Bharat Bandh on December 8 if the farm laws are not withdrawn,” HS Lakhowal, general secretary, Bharatiya Kisan Union (Lakhowal) said in a statement.

Union Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar and Union Minister Piyush Goyal hold talks with farmer leaders, at Vigyan Bhawan. Photo: Twitter

Yesterday, at Vigyan Bhavan, the fourth round of talks between the central government and the farmer leaders took place. Again, it was a long-drawn-out affair, with no real solution in sight. “The government is offering amendments to the three agri laws, but the farmers are insisting on ‘bill wapsi,’” Rakesh Tikait, spokesperson of the Bharatiya Kisan Union, told Gaon Connection. The farmers are demanding naya kanoon, a new law, and not the kala kanoon, the black laws, as they call the new agri laws.

“There is some hope,” Onkar Singh, general secretary, Bharatiya Kisan Union, Rajewal faction, told Gaon Connection, with cautious optimism. “We are looking forward to tomorrow’s meeting where we hope things will move a little more ahead,” he added.

“At first, the government was not willing to even speak to us. Then they put in conditions and finally agreed to speak to us without any preconditions,” Rudlu Singh Mansa, state president Punjab Kisan Union, told Gaon Connection. “Now, they have agreed to the amendments. But, amendments are not the solution to the problem. We want the laws to be removed completely,” said Mansa, who was also present at Vigyan Bhavan yesterday.

In a statement made to the Press, subsequent to the meeting, Narendra Singh Tomar, Union minister of agriculture and farmer welfare, rural development and panchayat raj, said the government was sensitive to the needs and the welfare of the government. He also added that the various rounds of discussions between the government and the farmer leaders were congenial and constructive. He acknowledged the apprehensions of the farmers and reiterated that the farming community need not fear abolition of the Minimum Support Price or the mandi system, because they would continue.

Piyush Goyal, Union railways and commerce minister, and Som Prakash, minister of state for commerce, were also present at the day’s negotiations. The Central government and the farmer leaders will meet again tomorrow, December 5, at 2 pm, for the fifth round of talks.

Meanwhile in Tikri on the Haryana-Delhi border, farmer Harinder Bindu of the Bharatiya Kisan Union (Ekta Ugrahan), who leads its women’s wing, harbours no such optimism. She reports an influx of more farmers since last night and they continue to arrive, she said. “While the central government is discussing the matter today, the kisan groups are doing the same,” she said. According to her, yesterday, the government did put forward some proposals to the farmers. “Today farmer leaders have got together to compile a list of things to bring up at the meeting tomorrow,” she informed Gaon Connection.

“The government put forth its stand, and we did the same,” Prem Singh Bhangu, President All India Kisan Federation, told Gaon Connection. “We prepared our points and highlighted what the specific problems were with each of the laws. The government also conceded that there were at least six or seven deficiencies in the laws,” Bhangu said.

“We are fighting this battle for our lands so that our future generations can continue to cultivate them,” say farmers.Photo: Harinder Bindu, Tikri.

There are no immediate plans to back down or put the brakes on the protests. “We will fight to the end. But yes, there is always hope when both sides are still talking to each other. It is progress that both sides are listening,” Bindu conceded.

While Delhi has been gheraoed by farmers, residents of the national capital region of Delhi are complaining about the difficulty in movement due to the ongoing protests. Almost continuously, the Delhi Traffic Police is tweeting instructions on diversions, alternative routes, and so on. The Gazipur border on NH 24 is closed for those wanting to enter Delhi. The Chilla border on Noida link road is closed for traffic from Noida to Delhi, and so on… In several other places, the roads are only open to two-wheelers or ‘light vehicles’.

“The courier is not being able to come and pick up some urgent parcels I wanted to send,” Geeta Sangra, residing in Greater Noida, complained. Another resident at Mayur Vihar in East Delhi told Gaon Connection that a family member was stuck in Kaushambi in Ghaziabad, a hop and skip across the Uttar Pradesh border, but could not reach home. “There is always the danger of sudden bottlenecks, and closing of routes and of us getting stuck for hours on end. Going out to even shop for groceries is unwise,” she added.

“This is no way to hold a protest by holding a city hostage,” said another irate Delhi resident, who did not want to be named. She felt that the campaign was politically driven and many of the farmers who had gathered had no real idea what they were protesting.

There are also a lot of discussions with economists and farmers (who are not taking part in the protest) that are doing the rounds of social media, who think the agri laws are harbingers of positive reforms and not a sell-out. Agricultural economist Ashok Gulati said that politics and misinformation was driving the current narrative. Gulati is former chairman of the commission for agricultural costs and prices, an advisory body of the government of India on food supplies and pricing policies. He is chair professor for agriculture at of Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations. He said the focus should be on increasing the income of the farmer, and suggested ways to do that. But doing away with the agri laws was not one of them, he said.

Farmers cooking dinner for protesters. Photo: Harinder Bindu, Tikri.

Meanwhile, for the farmer who has left his home and fields behind and travelled hundreds of kilometres to the national capital, braving the cold, discomfort and distance, the goal is very clear. “We are fighting this battle for our lands so that our future generations can continue to cultivate them. We have been protesting for months now and the government paid us no heed. That is the reason we have turned up at its doorstep, forcing it to pay attention to us,” said an agitated farmer.

Will they be heard? It remains to be seen, as tomorrow is another day. 

With inputs from Amit Pandey and Arvind Shukla.