Modi U-turns on Indian farm laws after mass protests thumbnail

Modi U-turns on Indian farm laws after mass protests

India will scrap agricultural reform laws that sparked a year of huge protests by farmers, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said Friday in a stunning U-turn that sparked celebrations but also criticism from economists.

Thousands of farmers have been
camped out on the borders of the capital New Delhi since November last year,
handing Modi one of the biggest challenges since his Hindu nationalist
government came to power in 2014.

The rallies became a lightning rod
for opposition to Modi’s administration in a country where two-thirds of the
1.3 billion population rely on agriculture for their livelihood.

In a contrite address to the nation
coinciding with a major Sikh festival — the religion of many farmers — Modi
said the laws would be repealed in parliament’s winter session, which begins
later this month.

“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,” the
71-year-old said.

The surprise announcement sparked
muted celebrations on Friday with farmers chanting, waving flags and beeping
tractor horns at two protest sites outside Delhi.

“Until they give it to us in
writing, we won’t leave from here. We don’t trust the government,” farmer
Gurmeet Singh, 50, told AFP.

“Our farmers have died fighting
for this. Until it’s passed in the parliament, we won’t leave.”

‘Black day’

The reforms passed in September 2020
aimed to deregulate farm produce markets where state bodies have for decades
set guaranteed minimum prices for crops. 

Modi reiterated on Friday that the
changes would have boosted rural incomes and reformed a hugely inefficient
agricultural sector where a vast amount of produce rots before it can be sold.

Thousands of Indian farmers commit
suicide every year because of poverty, debt and ever more erratic weather
patterns caused by climate change.

“This is a black day in the
history of India’s economic reforms. This is Modi’s worst decision ever,”
economist Gautam Chikermane from the Observer Research Foundation think tank
told AFP.

“Now there will be no
agriculture sector reforms for the next 25 years… These three farm sector
reforms would have done to India’s agriculture what the 1991 reforms did to
manufacturing and services.”

Big business

But protesters said the changes —
which were suspended pending negotiations with the farmers — would have left
farmers at the mercy of big business.

The farmers first tried to march on
New Delhi last November, but violent clashes police prevented them from
entering the capital.

They camped out at two sites outside
the city, blocking major highways. In the subsequent months they dug in as
their numbers swelled to tens of thousands.

The protests turned into colourful,
semi-permanent camps with volunteers providing food, sanitation and even
dentist surgeries and foot massage parlours.

‘Hundreds dead’

Unions say hundreds of farmers died
during the protests, which continued even through a devastating spike in
Covid-19 in April and May.

The rallies turned violent in
January when a tractor rally transformed into a rampage that embarrassed the
government on Indian Republic Day, leaving one farmer dead and hundreds of
police injured.

Last month in Uttar Pradesh state,
four farmers died when a convoy allegedly belonging to a government minister
and his son slammed into protesters. Demonstrators then set fire to several
cars and four other people were killed.

In recent months, the protest sites
had thinned out, but a hard-core contingent remained and major demonstrations
had been expected for the one-year anniversary of the start of the rallies
later this month.

Modi’s reversal came ahead of
important elections for his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in states such as
Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, both home to huge numbers of farmers.

Hartosh Singh Bal, political editor
of Caravan magazine, told AFP: “The farm laws were dead in the water and
it was always a question of Modi’s ego which stood in the way of government
repealing them.”

“This decision also reflects that BJP’s reading of (the Uttar Pradesh) election is tighter… People who were voting for him will vote irrespective but it will ensure that some who may have voted against him over this may now vote for him.”

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