In an unexpected statement, the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, announced this Friday (11/19) his intention to repeal three agrarian reform legislation against which tens of thousands of Indian farmers have been protesting for over a year.
Modi’s decision represents a significant setback for the militant leader of the second most populous country on the planet and comes just as state elections approach in politically important regions of India’s so-called “grain belt”, which include the states of Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, where Modi’s party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (PBJ), yearns for voter support.
Modi announced the repeal of the laws in a speech marking the birth anniversary of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, a monotheistic religion that originated in the late 15th century. Many of the farmers participating in the protests are adherents of Sikhism. In his speech, Modi acknowledged that the government was unable to win the debate on agrarian reform.
“We have decided to repeal the three agricultural laws. We will begin the constitutional process of repealing these three laws in the parliamentary session, starting later this month,” Modi said in a speech to the nation. “I appeal to all farmers who participate in the protests to return home. Let’s start again and move forward,” he added.
“Long Live the Farmers Movement”
Tens of thousands of farmers, who rightly form one of the most influential electoral blocs in India, have been camped outside the capital New Delhi since last November and are demanding the suspension of the laws.
The land reform — with three laws introduced in September last year — aimed to deregulate the sector — a move that allowed farmers to sell their products to buyers outside government-regulated wholesale markets, where producers are guaranteed a minimum price.
They feared that the reform would result in lower prices they receive for their crops. They then started protests across the country — the protests attracted activists and celebrities from India and abroad, including climate activist Greta Thunberg and American singer Rihanna.
Farmers camped on the outskirts of the capital celebrated Modi’s announcement — the commemoration included the distribution of sweets and chants of “save the farmer” and “live on the farmers’ movement.”
For the most part peaceful, the farmers’ demonstration took a violent turn on January 26, Republic Day of India, when farmers overpowered the police and stormed the historic Red Fort in New Delhi after tearing down barricades and driving tractors through roadblocks . A protester was killed and several farmers and police were injured.
“Despite many difficulties, we have been here for almost a year and today our sacrifice has finally paid off,” said Ranjit Kumar, a 36-year-old farmer from Ghazipur, a major protest nucleus in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state.
Rakesh Tikait, leader of a farmers’ union group, said the protests would only be called off when parliament finally repeals the laws.
Blow to Indian Agriculture
Modi’s capitulation leaves unresolved a complex system of farm subsidies and price support that critics say the government cannot afford. The retreat also raises doubts among investors about how economic reforms risk being undermined by political pressures.
Some agricultural experts called Modi’s reversal regrettable because the agrarian reform would bring new technologies and investments. “It’s a blow to Indian agriculture,” said Sandip Das, an agricultural policy researcher and analyst. “The laws would have helped to attract a lot of investment in agriculture and food processing — two sectors that need a lot of money to modernize.”
The Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), a group representing major corporations, has pinned hopes on the laws to pave the way for modernizing India’s decrepit post-harvest infrastructure.
In addition, the domestic food processing sector, valued at $34 billion, would have grown exponentially thanks to agrarian legislation, according to the IIC. And the Indian government claimed that reforming the sector, which accounts for about 15% of the country’s $2.7 trillion economy, would represent new opportunities and better prices for farmers.