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A fourth round of talks between farmer unions and government ministers on Thursday failed to end the stalemate over demands to roll back the three pro-market agricultural laws after farmers rejected a government offer to reconsider provisions of the controversial legislation.

The two sides agreed to meet again on Saturday, as thousands of farmers from Punjab, Haryana and other states continued to block highways leading to Delhi with their tractor-trolleys, demanding that the government withdraw the bills and make assured purchases at support prices a legal entitlement.

Farmers fear that by weakening state- regulated markets and widening the role of private corporations, the reforms will dilute existing state purchase of foodgrain at minimum support prices (MSP).

“We discussed with farmers with an open mind and assured them the MSP system will continue. We appeal to farmers to withdraw their agitation," agriculture minister Narendra Singh Tomar said after the meeting. He added that the government will ensure that private traders who purchase outside regulated markets are registered.

“We will strengthen existing mandis and consider if a tax could be imposed on private purchase outside mandis," the minister said. He added that the central government was open to changing the dispute resolution mechanism proposed in the bills.

“Farmer unions were very insistent that if the very objectives of the laws are wrong then amendments won’t do," said Kavitha Kuruganti, member of the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee, who attended the meeting with 39 other farmer representatives from Punjab, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh.

“A simple assurance that MSP regime will continue will not help; that requires a comprehensive (policy) overhaul and a legal backing," Kuruganti added.

In a letter send to the agriculture minister ahead of the meeting, farmer organisations said the laws will expose farmers to “giant traders in the name of freedom of choice" and farmers will “suffer the freedom of a goat before a tiger".

“We wish to reiterate that the farmers understand and even common farmers are correctly articulating, that these acts are only for providing new opportunities and alternatives to the giant food trading corporations who will make private investments, to earn huge profits, which entails controlling production, selling costly inputs, buying cheap to reap rich ‘harvests’," the letter added.

Farmer groups had earlier rejected a government proposal to set up a committee to review the laws, saying “such committees led to no results and outcomes in the past".

On Thursday, ahead of the meeting between farmer unions and the government, Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh met Union home minister Amit Shah. “I reiterated the need to protect MSP and continue with the APMC-based mandi system. Requested him to listen to the farmers with an open mind and quickly resolve the standoff," Singh said after the meeting.

Also on Thursday, former chief minister of Punjab, Parkash Singh Badal returned his Padma Vibhushan national award protesting the “shocking indifference and contempt with which the government is treating the ongoing peaceful and democratic agitation against the farm acts."

In September, Badal’s Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) party had severed ties with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in protest against the three laws.

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