Indian government repeals farm reforms after year of protests

Indian government repeals farm reforms after year of protests
© Manish Swarup Opposition politicians hold a protest demanding repeal of three controversial agriculture laws on the opening day of the winter session of Parliament in New Delhi, India (Manish Swarup/AP)

Indian politicians have repealed agricultural legislation that provoked a year of nationwide protests by farmers, in a move that was seen as a major reversal and rare climbdown for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, which had ardently defended the controversial reforms.

The Farm Laws Repeal bill passed the lower and upper houses of Parliament with scant debate — 10 days after Mr Modi announced the surprise decision to withdraw the three laws in a televised national address.

Protesting farmers have hunkered down in makeshift camps outside the capital of New Delhi since November last year to demand the removal of the laws, which they feared would drastically shrink their incomes.

The repeal bill will need to be signed by the president before it is formally implemented. But farmers have said their demonstrations will continue. Just last week, thousands of jubilant farmers in tractors, jeeps and cars waved green and white flags as they drove around the roads ringing New Delhi to celebrate their victory, but they have made it clear the government has not met all their demands.

Indian government repeals farm reforms after year of protests
© Provided by PA Media Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses the media on the opening day of the winter session of Parliament in New Delhi (Manish Swarup/AP)

Rakesh Tikait, one of the farmers’ leaders, said that farmers needed government assurances of guaranteed prices for certain essential crops, like wheat and rice — a system introduced in the 1960s to help India shore up its food reserves and prevent shortages. He demanded that the government set up a committee to settle these demands before the famers consider ending their protests.

Farmers form one of India’s most influential voting blocs. Mr Modi’s decision to scrap the new laws came ahead of elections early next year in key states like Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, both significant agricultural producers and states where his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is eager to shore up its support.

Mr Modi’s far-right Hindu nationalist party already holds power in Uttar Pradesh, but its support is under pressure over a struggling economy and the government’s response to the pandemic. If farmers desert the ruling party, it will not only shrink his prospects to form a state government for a second term but also weaken chances for the party to get an overwhelming majority in the 2024 national elections.

Political analysts say these elections are a major reason behind the surprise move to withdraw the unpopular agricultural reforms, but that it is too early to say whether it will work.

The government initially insisted that the new legislation, which would open the way to a deregulated market and more private-sector control in agriculture, was urgently needed to modernise Indian farming.

But farmers feared that the government’s move to introduce market reforms would leave workers poorer. They worried that the laws signalled a move away from a system in which an overwhelming majority of farmers sell only to government-sanctioned marketplaces. This would leave them vulnerable to big corporations that would have no legal obligation to pay them guaranteed prices, they said.

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