Modi backtracks on controversial farm laws, urges farmers to go home

Farmers shout slogans as they celebrate news of the repeal of farm laws they were protesting against, in Singhu, on the outskirts of New Delhi, India, Nov 19, 2021.

A year of protests from farmers and opposition finally led to a U-turn by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi who has announced to repeal the three farm laws which have led to widespread protests throughout the country by farmers' unions in several states.

In an address to the nation on Friday, Modi said, “we have decided to repeal all three farm laws. We will start the constitutional process to repeal all the three laws in the parliament session that starts at the end of this month.”

Modi attributed the repeal to failure to let farmers understand. “We haven't been able to explain to our farmers. I appeal to all the farmers who are part of the protest … to now return to your home, to your loved ones, to your farms, and family. Let’s make a fresh start and move forward.”

But Modi said: “Whatever I did was for farmers. What I am doing is for the country.”

But some analysts said one of the reasons is the imminent provincial election in Uttar Pradesh, a state considered extremely important in political equations.

And this "backtracking" could be a blow to Modi's image as a leader who does not budge under pressure apart from dealing a blow on the government's reform bids.

The three farm laws were passed in September 2020 to overhaul India’s agriculture sector. The agriculture sector employs about 60 percent of India’s workforce, but it is riddled with issues of poverty, debt and inefficiency.

READ MORE: Indian farmers gather near parliament to protest new laws

The farm laws soon became major bone of contention between the government and millions of farmers, who accused the government of passing the laws without consultation. They alleged the farm laws will jeopardize their livelihoods and big private corporations will take away their agricultural land.

The government repeatedly claimed that the farm laws would deregulates the agricultural sector, allowing farmers to sell produce to buyers beyond government-regulated wholesale markets, where growers are assured of a minimum price (MSP).

Reform of the sector, which accounts for about 15 percent of the $2.7 trillion economy, means new opportunities and better prices for farmers, according to officials, who are rejected by farmers’ unions.

Protesting farmers ride tractors and shout slogans as they march to the capital breaking police barricades during India's Republic Day celebrations in New Delhi, India, Jan 26, 2021.

After the government refused to repeal the laws in the following months, on Nov 26, 2020, tens of thousands of farmers started to camp out on major highways around the Indian capital demanding complete repeal of the farm laws. Irate farmers set up protest camps along the national highways into the capital. Police put up barricades, used teargas and water cannon to disperse the protesters. Dozens of protesters died from heat, cold and COVID-19 restrictions at the protest sites.

Several rounds of talks for the past one year between the federal government and farm unions leaders have failed to end the protest.

Terming the announcement as a major victory of farmers across the country, prominent farm union leader Rakesh Tikiat said the year- long protest will not end immediately, protest will be withdrawn only after the contentious legislations are repealed in Parliament

The protests turned violent on Jan 26, India’s Republic Day when irate farmers stormed into the center of Delhi and briefly took over the historic Red Fort, from where Prime Minister address the nation on the day. 

The announcement on Friday morning came on a day Sikhs — the dominant community in Punjab — are celebrating the birth anniversary of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism.

The decision comes as farmers' protests are on the verge of completing a year, ahead of key state elections.

Friday's announcement marks a major surprise for the farm unions leaders as the government had not taken any initiative to talk to farmers in recent months.

Terming the announcement as a major victory of farmers across the country, prominent farm union leader Rakesh Tikiat said the year- long protest will not end immediately, protest will be withdrawn only after the contentious legislations are repealed in Parliament.

“We will wait for the day when the farm laws are repealed in Parliament. Along with MSP of crops, the government should talk to farmers on other issues too," Tikait tweeted.

Welcoming Modi’s announcement, another farmer leader Darshan Pal said it was an “achievement of the farmers’ movement”.

Farmers in Punjab and Haryana are celebrating the news, raising flags of victory and distributing sweets. But they say the fight is not over.

"We have no faith in a verbal promise. Unless we see it in writing that the laws have actually been repealed, we will stay here," Ramvir Singh, a 76-year-old protesting farmer at Ghazipur, an entry point between Delhi and Haryana. Ramvir was celebrating along with hundreds of farmers at Ghazipur.

Experts say the upcoming state elections in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh – where farmers make up a crucial proportion of the vote bank and farmers’ unions hold significant power and influence – may have forced the decision.  The farm laws had triggered a lot of anger and distrust between the farmers and the government in the north Indian states which are the heartland of Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

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The repeal of the three farm laws is a major political victory for India's peasant movement, said economist R Ramakumar, a professor with Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. “Their resolute struggle has shown and amplified the power of dissent in our democracy.”

Opposition parties welcomed the decision, with Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi calling it "a win against injustice".

An opposition Member of Parliament, Palaniappan Chidambaram, tweeted: “PM’s announcement on the withdrawal of the three farm laws is not inspired by a change of policy or a change of heart. It is impelled by fear of elections!”

Senior BJP leaders said the decision to repeal the laws had nothing to do with the polls and the decision was taken to end the protest.


The writer is a freelance journalist for China Daily. Another freelance journalist Arunava Das in Kolkata contributed to this report.