New Delhi: Under sharp attack from the protesting farmers’ unions for their “pro-government” public stand on the three contentious agricultural reform laws, members of a panel set up by the Supreme Court to resolve the crisis said Tuesday they will “keep aside their own ideology and views” while consulting various stakeholders, even as they indicated a complete repeal won’t augur well for the much-needed agriculture reforms.
After their first meeting at Delhi’s Pusa Agriculture University on Tuesday, a key panel member and president of the Maharashtra-based Shetkari Sanghatana, Anil Ghanwat, said the farm sector reforms were much needed and no political party in the next 50 years would ever attempt them again if these laws were repealed. He said the panel would listen to all farmers, including those supporting and those opposing the laws, and then prepare a report for the Supreme Court.
Noting their “biggest challenge” was to convince the protesting farmers to appear before the panel, Ghanwat said the first meeting with the stakeholders had been scheduled for Thursday. So far, nine rounds of talks have also taken place between the government and the agitating unions without any concrete resolution. The next round of talks between the farmers’ representatives and the Centre are now scheduled for 2 pm on Wednesday at New Delhi’s Vigyan Bhavan.
Ghanwat said the court-appointed committee had decided to listen to the views of the protesting unions on a priority basis, as it wants them to end their two-month agitation at Delhi’s borders at the earliest. He also said, however, that the laws implemented over the last 70 years were not in the interests of farmers, and 4.5 lakh farmers have committed suicide. “Farmers are getting poor and are under debt. Some changes are needed. Those changes were happening, but then the protest began,” he added.
After staying the implementation of the three farm laws, the Supreme Court had on January 11 appointed Ghanwat, Bhartiya Kisan Union president Bhupinder Singh Mann and agricultural economists Ashok Gulati and Pramod Kumar Joshi as members of a committee to ascertain the views of the stakeholders on the contentious laws.
The committee members came under sharp criticism by the protesting farmers and the Opposition for publicly supporting the new laws. The farmers’ unions even made it clear they would not talk to any committee members, after which Mann recused himself from the panel.
The 81-year-old Mann, a former Rajya Sabha member, said: “As a farmer myself and a union leader, in view of the prevailing sentiments and apprehensions amongst the farm unions and the public in general, I am ready to sacrifice any position offered or given to me so as to not compromise the interests of Punjab and farmers of the country.”
Ghanwat said the panel was keen to know whether the farmers want these laws repealed or not. “A physical meeting will be held with those organisations who want to meet us in person. Video conferencing will be held with those who can’t come to us.”
He said: “If the government wants to come and speak with us, we welcome it. We will hear the government too. The biggest challenge is to convince the agitating farmers to come and speak with us. We will try our level best.”
Ghanwat also made it clear the panel “will not meet representatives of those farm unions that were formed recently”. The statement assumes significance in the wake of reports that the BJP was now registering new farmers’ unions as a way to sway the dialogue in favour of the laws, and that these unions were meeting ministers and submitting memos.
Joshi said: “We are also setting up a website where people can post their suggestions… We are unbiased, impartial.” Even the Supreme Court seemed to defend the selection of the panel members. “Opinions can change,” Chief Justice of India Sharad A. Bobde said in an unrelated case, in a possible reference to criticism of the panel members.
CJI Bobde said: “If you appoint a committee and if they had taken a view (earlier) it does not mean they should not be in the committee… It is okay. You have taken a view and you are entitled to change your opinion. Generally, there is a peculiar lack of comprehension on the constitution of a committee. They are not judges.”