Members of a committee appointed by the Supreme Court to resolve the deadlock between protesting farmers union and the Centre on Tuesday said they will keep their personal views aside, but stated that repealing the Central Government's three contentious laws won't augur well for much-needed agriculture reforms.
Meanwhile, the tenth round of discussions between farmers unions and the Centre is slated to take place >tomorrow (Wednesday, 20 January).
After the first meeting of the apex-court appointed panel, one of its members, Anil Ghanwat, said the first round of talks with the protesting farmers and other stakeholders is scheduled for Thursday (21 January).
Noting that the "biggest challenge" is to convince the protesting farmers to appear before the panel, Ghanwat said they will be still given a priority as the panel wants the long-running protest to end at the earliest. Agri-economists Ashok Gulati and Pramod Kumar Joshi, also on the panel, were present for the meeting.
Thousands of farmers, mainly from Punjab, Haryana and Western Uttar Pradesh, are protesting on Delhi borders for almost two months against the three laws enacted in September. They have alleged these laws will end the mandi and MSP procurement systems and leave the farmers at the mercy of big corporates, even as the government has rejected these apprehensions as misplaced.
Meanwhile, farmers at the borders of Delhi said preparations for a tractor march planned in Delhi on 26 January are going full steam, though the official permission is yet to be granted.
The Supreme Court on Monday, while hearing the Centre's application seeking an injunction against the proposed tractor on Republic Day, had termed it a matter of law and order and left the decision to the Delhi Police.
'Panel members will keep aside personal views'
Ghanwat, president of Maharashtra-bases Shetkari Sanghatana and a member of the SC-appointed panel on Tuesday said "People are dying in the cold. We don't want this (protest) to continue not because of any political reasons, but I am a farmer and I have been agitating for so many years too. When lives are lost in agitation, it is very disappointing and heartbreaking."
He also said that the laws implemented in the last 70 years were not in the interest of farmers and that around 4.5 lakh farmers have committed suicide. "Farmers are getting poor and are under debt. Some changes are needed. Those changes were happening but the protest began," he added.
Ghanwat said his own organisation was also not fully in favour of the laws and it wanted some changes. However, no political party in the next 50 years will ever attempt the reforms again if these laws are repealed and farmers will continue to die, he said.
"If we want change, come and talk to us. We will try to fully deliver what you want," he said adding that reforms are needed to end the exploitative system in the agriculture sector.
Ghanwat appealed to the farmers to co-operate with the committee to bring about these changes, saying "We are one. I am also a farmer leader. To help Punjab farmers, many times I mobilised thousands of farmers from Maharashtra. There is no rivalry. We had an ideology, now it is not there..."
He added that there will not be peace in the country when farmers are not able to live happily.
The Supreme Court had set up the four-member panel on 11 January to look into the contentious three farm laws. Protesting farmers unions, as well as some Opposition parties, had raised questions over the committee's constitution, pointing out that its members had in the past expressed support to the three farm laws,
One of the members, Bhupinder Singh Mann, laterbrecused himself , citing farmers' interests.
Briefing media after their meeting, Ghanwat said, "In today's meeting, we have decided to hold our first meeting with farmers and other stakeholders at 11 am on 21 January. We will meet both physically and virtually depending on the convenience of farmers."
"The biggest challenge is to convince the agitating farmers to come and speak with us. We will try our level best and we will definitely want to speak with them," Ghanwat said.
It is not clear as yet whether the panel can meet the protesting farmers at their place if they don't appear before us, but the committee members wish to meet them and try to convince them, he added.
Besides farmers, the panel will seek views of farmers' bodies and other stakeholders such as farm exporters, traders, millers, ginners, dairy and poultry industry on the new farm laws, in addition to the central and state governments, he said, adding that a website will also be launched to invite suggestions.
On protesting farmers' allegations that the panel members were "pro-government" and have openly expressed their support for the three laws in the past, Ghanwat said, "It is their view. Whatever might have been our earlier ideology, now we are on the Supreme Court-appointed panel. We cannot be one-sided."
"Panel members will keep their personal views on farm laws aside while preparing a report to be submitted to the Supreme Court. ...Our duty is to listen to both sides and not impose our ideology," he said.
Ghanwat further said, "We have been given a responsibility and we will fulfill it properly. We want to request those farmers who don't want to come before us that we are neither from any party nor from the government side. We are from the Supreme Court side," he said.
Meanwhile, during a hearing on a separate matter, Chief Justice of India SA Bobde said members of a committee are not judges, and they may very well change their opinions, reported LiveLaw. "Just because a person has expressed a view on the matter, that is not a disqualification to be a member of committee. Generally, there is a peculiar lack of comprehension about the constitution of a committee. They are not judges," the report quoted him as saying.
Another member of the SC-appointed panel, Gulati said that its prime job is collate the best views and collective wisdom of the committee on the farm laws, and also views of farmers and other stakeholders, put it in a proper framework and communicate it to the apex court.
The third member, Joshi, said the committee is hopeful of completing the report within two months, as directed by the apex court and added that it is clear that the members cannot give their views in the report." "Our views may be different. When a responsibility like this is given by the court, we have to work in an unbiased and transparent way," he said
On whether any replacement would be made for Mann, Ghanwat said the decision on whom to appoint was up to the apex court. Gulati said all members of the panel are "equal" and ruled out the appointment of a chairman of the panel.
Protesting farmers prepare for tractor march
Meanwhile, unions protesting at the borders of Delhi said preparations for a planned tractor rally on the Outer Ring Road in Delhi on 26 January have begun and more farmers would be joining in.
The tractor rally, protestors said, was happening because the government had failed to meet their demands in the last two months, and would be a way to display the farmers' unity. While the final plan for the rally is yet to be formulated, volunteers from among the protesters have been roped in to ensure discipline during the march, farmers said.
"Rehearsals for the rally are going on back home in our villages. The volunteers here are being told how to maintain decorum during the march," Sukhjit Singh Sidhu, a protesting farmer from Patiala told PTI, adding that lakhs of people will turn up from Thursday, after gurupurab (Guru Gobind Singh's birth anniversary) tomorrow.
"We want the government to give us permission for our rally. This is our country and it is our constitutional right to voice our needs and demands," said Amarjeet Singh Rarra, general secretary, Deaba Kisan Committee, said on the Singhu border. "We will march with our farmer unions' flags and the national flag. So if they fight us, they will be fighting the 'tiranga'," he said.
He added that instead of preventing the farmers from taking out the march, the Centre and the police should provide a safe corridor for the rally.
"We met the police today to tell them that our rally will be completely non-violent, and they said they will scrutinise the route details and get back to us tomorrow," said Lakhbir Singh, All India Kisan Sabha, state vice-president (Punjab). "We also want to see what the government has to say tomorrow at the talks. We will then finalise the plan in 1 or 2 days," he said.
Farmers in Punjab said that tractor rallies have already been held in places such as Nawanshahr and Gurdaspur as a build-up to the proposed 26 January event and more are planned over the next two days in the state's villages.
"There is a great enthusiasm among people in Punjab to become part of the tractor parade. Our batches will start moving towards Delhi from 23 and 24 January," Bhartiya Kisan Union (Ekta Ugrahan) general secretary Sukhdev Singh Kokrikalan said.
Bhartiya Kisan Union (Sidhupur) president Jagjit Singh Dallewal said 20,000 to 25,000 tractors would come to Delhi from Punjab alone for the planned parade.
BKU (Ekta Ugrahan) vice-president Harinder Kaur Bindu said women who are camping at the Delhi border and those who come later from Punjab will take part in the parade and added that several women will also drive tractors.
According to a Hindustan Times report, the BKU said around 3,000 farmers affiliated to it from Uttarakhand's Udham Singh Nagar will drive their tractors to Gazipur on 23 January to take part in the rally.
Efforts have also begun in Uttar Pradesh to mobilise and prepare farmers for the planned tractor rally, reported the Indian Express. "Our district alone will send 1,000 to 1,200 tractor-trolleys, each carrying 25 people, for 26 January," Rajkumar Guddu, a BKU leader from Banat near Shamil told the newspaper.
BJP, Congress trade barbs
The BJP and the Congress continued to spar over the farm laws and farmers protest on the day before the next round of talks between the Centre and the agitating farmers. Senior BJP leader and Union minister Prakash Javadekar alleged that the Opposition party does not want the talks to succeed and has resorted to obstructive tactics.
He expressed confidence that the talks will be successful and claimed that the three laws were based on demands made by the farming community over the years.
Addressing a press conference after Congress leader Rahul Gandhi released a booklet "Kheti ka khoon" and attacked the government, Javadekar accused him of running away from the questions BJP president JP Nadda asked of him on Twitter and alleged that the Congress leader displayed his "familiar indecency" while referring to his party chief.
To Rahul's charge that three or four people enjoy a monopoly in the economy, Javadekar said it was during the Congress rule that one family ran the country and alleged that Rahul is unhappy because his family rule has ended.
Referring to the Congress booklet, the BJP leader took a swipe at the party, saying it has "special love" for 'khoon' (blood) and referred to people's killings during the partition, anti-Sikh riots and Bhagalpur riots.
He said farmers have suffered due to "destructive" policies of the Congress and added that the Modi government has empowered them with the transfer of Rs 1.19 lakh crore into their accounts with the total amount likely to be over Rs 7 lakh crore in 10 years.
Taking a swipe at Rahul over his claim that food prices will rise due to the government's policies, he said the fact is over 80 crore people get rice and wheat at subsidised rates of Rs 3 and Rs 2 respectively.
Rahul earlier in the day released a booklet highlighting the "plight" of farmers in the wake of the Centre's three farm laws and claimed that the legislations are designed to "destroy" the agriculture sector. He asserted that the only solution to the farmers' issue is to repeal the legislations.
Maharashtra minister Nawab Malik said Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray and NCP president Sharad Pawar will take part in a protest planned in Mumbai in support of the farmers agitating on borders of New Delhi. Some farmers' organisations have planned to hold protests in Mumbai from 23 to 25 January.
The Samyukta Kisan Morcha had on Monday reiterated the movement "will not have any direct engagement with any political party" and disassociated itself from a meeting its constituent Gurnam Singh Chaduni had attended with some Opposition leaders.
A controversy had erupted after Bhartiya Kisan Union-Haryana president Chaduni attended the meeting with the Opposition leaders in Delhi on Sunday and supported a call for convening a 'Jan Sansad' (People's Parliament) on the farmers' issue on 22 to 23 January.
In a statement, the Samyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM) said its coordination committee "inquired into the controversial matter of Chaduni's meeting with several political parties".
"Chaduni, clarifying his stand to the committee, stated in writing that yesterday's meeting was organised by him in his personal capacity. SKM is not associated with this activity in any way. Realising this, he assured the committee that in future, while the ongoing farmers' agitation is underway, he will not attend any political party meeting," it said, adding that the committee "welcomed his statement and decided to end the controversy here".
The SKM had said earlier on Monday that it "has formed a committee that will inquire into the matter and give its report in three days' time. SKM will take further steps thereafter."
In the late-evening statement, the morcha said, "The juncture at which this current unprecedented farmers' movement is, unity and discipline are of highest priority.... Any organisation and party is free to extend its support; however, the Samyukt Kisan Morcha and the movement will not have any direct engagement with any political party."
On the meeting, Chaduni had said that he wanted to let the country know where all these parties "stand on farm laws " whether they are against these or in favour" but added that he will abide by whatever the morcha decides.
Replying to a question, he had also said that his organisation had never invited any politician to share stage or address the people during the ongoing agitation against the Centre's new farm laws.
With inputs from PTI