Indian government ministers began talks with farmers’ leaders on Thursday to try and break a deadlock over laws passed earlier this year seeking to deregulate the agriculture sector that have ignited the country’s biggest farm protests in years.
Tens of thousands of growers have camped outside the capital, New Delhi, in protest against the laws seeking to rid the sector of procurement procedures and allow farmers to sell to institutional buyers and big international retailers.
The farmers, who form a powerful political constituency, fear the laws passed in September could pave the way for the government to stop buying grains at guaranteed prices, leaving them at the mercy of private buyers.
The protests pose a crucial test for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ability to reform India’s vast agricultural sector, which accounts for 15 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) but employs more than half of the country’s 1.3 billion people.
“We are at one of the three border crossings into the Indian capital which are completely closed to traffic. Farmers say they want to continue to create this disruption until the government either repeals three recent farm laws or writes guarantees of minimum prices for their produce into law,” Al Jazeera’s Elizabeth Puranam said.
“And the government is saying that it is going to enter these talks with an open heart, they want to find a solution that is in the interest of farmers but with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent comments that these were much-needed reforms that are in the interest of farmers, it’s difficult to see right now how the two sides can find a middle ground.”
Agriculture and Farmers Welfare Minister Narendra Singh Tomar and Trade Minister Piyush Goyal have started discussions with nearly three dozen farmers’ representatives, a government official said.
“We expect the government to pay heed to our demands to repeal the laws detrimental to India’s farming community,” said Joginder Singh Ugrahan, a prominent farmers’ leader.
Earlier on Thursday, Amarinder Singh, the chief minister of Punjab state, from where a large number of the protesters are from, met Home Affairs Minister Amit Shah in the capital.
“Discussion is going on between farmers and centre, there’s nothing for me to resolve. I reiterated my opposition in my meeting with the home minister and requested him to resolve the issue as it affects the economy of my state and security of the nation,” Singh was quoted as saying by the ANI news agency.
Modi’s government has defended the bill and several hours of talks between farmers’ leaders and the government on Tuesday failed to break the impasse.
“We humbly request you to pay heed to the voice of farmers and withdraw completely the implementation of these Acts,” Avik Saha, another farmers’ leader said in a letter written to the agriculture minister on Thursday.
“The issue is not about one particular clause, but about the direction in which the government of India is pushing farming in India,” Saha wrote.
Farm groups say the government is trying to end a decades-old policy of providing them with an assured minimum price for producing staples, such as wheat and rice.
Meanwhile, former Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal, who was an ally of Modi’s governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) until September, has returned his Padma Vibhushan – the country’s second-highest civilian award – to protest against “the betrayal of the farmers” by the government.
Badal’s Shiromani Akali Dal party broke its alliance with the BJP after the farm laws were passed in September.
“Now we have had around 150 athletes, including Olympic gold medalists, saying they are going to go to the presidential building on Saturday to return their national awards again in solidarity with the farmers,” Al Jazeera’s Puranam said.