Indian farmers protest against three farm laws in May 2021. Photo: AFP

JAIPUR – In a major policy reversal, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has announced that three controversial farm laws that thousands of farmers have been protesting against for over a year will soon be repealed.

The announcement, made during a national address on Friday morning, came as a major surprise and is being portrayed as a big loss for Modi and a win for protesting agrarians who have camped out in the capital for months.

They have faced barricades, water cannon and teargas. Violence broke out when farmers stormed the center of Delhi in February and occupied the historic Red Fort.

The lightning rod legislation, which was passed in September last year, sought to deregulate the agriculture sector to allow farmers to sell their produce and products outside of government-regulated markets where they are guaranteed a minimum price.

However, farmers feared the laws would reduce the prices they receive and favor big corporations over small growers. Modi’s government had earlier said repealing the laws was out of the question, while protracted negotiations to amend the laws ultimately failed.

Agriculture accounts for around 15% of India’s US$2.7 trillion economy. Some analysts believe the laws’ defeat will deter new investment in badly needed food processing and other modernizing technologies.

“Today I have come to tell you, the whole country, that we have decided to withdraw all three agricultural laws. In the Parliament session starting later this month, we will complete the constitutional process to repeal these three agricultural laws,” Modi said in his climbdown speech.

“To improve the condition of the farmers, three agricultural laws were brought in the country. The objective was that the farmers of the country, especially the small farmers, should get the right price for their produce and more and more options to sell the produce,” Modi said.

Modi said the laws were passed to help farmers, especially small agrarians, and in the interest of the country and for the bright future of the poor. He said that despite their best efforts, “we could not explain to some farmers the importance of farm laws.” The laws will be repealed during the new session of parliament that opens this month.

One key point of contention was the Minimum Support Price, or MSP, a form of market intervention by the national government to protect agricultural producers against any sharp fall in farm prices.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the laws were passed to help farmers. Photo: AFP / Sonali Pal Chaudhury / NurPhoto

The prime minister said that to make the MSP more effective and transparent, a committee would be set up to take decisions on all such matters. The committee would have representatives of the national and state governments, farmers, agricultural scientists and agricultural economists.

Thousands of farmers across the country, mainly in the north, started protesting after the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, 2020; The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, 2020 and; The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill, 2020 were passed in September 2020.

The Modi government was in such a rush that the bills were not properly put to a vote, including in the upper house. The government said at the time that the reforms would enable barrier-free trade in agricultural produce and empower farmers to engage with investors and buyers of their choice.

Farmers thought the changes would only benefit corporate or big industrial houses and that they would be at their mercy. However, farmers were not fully satisfied with the prime minister’s announcement on Friday and seemed in no hurry to call off the protests.

Rakesh Tikait, farmer leader and National spokesperson of Bhartiya Kisan (farmers) Union (BKU) tweeted that the protests would not be rolled up immediately.

Farmers in Amritsar burn an effigy of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Reliance Industries chairman Mukesh Ambani and Adani Group chairman Gautam Adani to protest against corporate businesses after farm bills were passed in Parliament. Photo: AFP / Narinder Nanu

“We will wait for the day when agricultural laws will be repealed in Parliament. Government should talk and discuss other farmers’ issues including MSP,” he added.

Nikhil Dey, a social and food rights activist, called the repeal an extraordinary victory for the farmers, their organizations and democratic processes in India.

Dey said Modi and the government were forced to understand that they could not override the interests of a large segment of India’s working people.

“It is obvious that political and electoral implications, and the decisive negative impact the determination to not repeal these laws was having in the upcoming state elections in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, has persuaded the government to change their stand,” he added.

At least seven states go to assembly polls in the next 11 to 12 months. The biggest of these is Uttar Pradesh (UP) with voting for 403 assembly seats set tentatively for February or March. Other states where assembly polls are expected in February and March include Punjab, Goa and  Uttrakhand.

“Half the battle won. Withdrawing the three contentious farm laws is welcome. But as long as MSP is not made a legal right for farmers, there will be no end to agrarian distress,” Devinder Sharma, an expert on Indian agriculture, tweeted.

Rahul Gandhi, leader of the Indian National Congress tweeted, “The country’s Annadata (farmers) bowed head of arrogance with Satyagraha (protesting peacefully or non-violent resistance). Congratulations on this victory against injustice.”

He predicted rightly in January that the government would have to backtrack on the farm laws.

A puppet show takes place during a protest against the farm laws in Ajmer, Rajasthan, in January. Photo: Himanshu Sharma / NurPhoto

Mamta Banerjee, chief minister of West Bengal and founder chairperson of All India Trinamool Congress, tweeted, “My heartfelt congratulations to every single farmer who fought relentlessly and were not fazed by the cruelty with which @BJP4India treated you.

“This is YOUR VICTORY! My deepest condolences to everyone who lost their loved ones in this fight.”

Farmers organizations say more than 700 farmers died during the protests.

Samyukt Kisan Morcha, a farm body leading the protest, welcomed the PM’s decision but said they would wait for the announcement to take effect through due parliamentary procedures. “If it happens, it will be a historic victory of the year-long farmers’ struggle in India,” it said.

Ashok Gehlot, chief minister of the northwestern state of Rajasthan, said that the decision had been taken after Modi’s BJP was beaten in recent by-elections, creating panic and fear the party would perform poorly at coming polls.