Repeal of ‘black laws’ designed to modernise agricultural sector is huge victory for farmers
01:46Modi repeals controversial laws in surprise victory for Indian farmers – video reportHannah Ellis-Petersen in DelhiFri 19 Nov 2021 17.29 GMT
First published on Fri 19 Nov 2021 05.58 GMT
Narendra Modi has announced he will repeal three contentious farm laws that prompted a year of protests and unrest in India, in one of the most significant concessions made by his government.
In a huge victory for India’s farmers, who had fought hard for the repeal of what they called the “black laws”, the prime minister announced in an address on Friday morning that “we have taken the laws back”.
“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,” said Modi, in a surprise announcement.
While Modi remained adamant in his speech that the laws were necessary reforms, he acknowledged that they were unfeasible given the fierce opposition from 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,” he added.
Modi had passed the three farm laws in 2020 in an attempt to overhaul India’s archaic agriculture sector by rolling back farm subsidies and price regulation on crops. The agriculture sector still employs about 60% of India’s workforce, but is riddled with issues of poverty, debt and inefficiency.
However, they quickly became a major source of contention among India’s millions of farmers, who accused the government of passing the laws without consultation. They said the reforms put their livelihoods and farms at risk and gave private corporations control over the pricing of their crops, which could crush smallholder farmers.
After the government refused to repeal the laws last year, hundreds of thousands of farmers marched to Delhi’s borders, met on the way with barricades, teargas and water cannon, and set up protest camps along the main highways into the capital.
Tens of thousands of farmers have remained at the several camps around Delhi borders ever since, maintaining one of the most sustained challenges to the Modi government, even through the harsh winters, baking summers and the brutal second wave of Covid-19. They found support in huge swathes of India, as well as internationally, with figures including Rihanna and Greta Thunberg speaking out in support of their actions, much to the chagrin of the government. The protests turned violent in February when the farmers stormed into the centre of Delhi and briefly took over the historic Red Fort in the old city centre.
The government had made concerted efforts to crush the farmer protest movement over the past year. Farmers and supportive activists were arrested and police made several threats to clear the protest camps around Delhi, before briefly resorting to barricading in the farmers with concrete barriers and spikes. Those leading the protests were regularly cast as terrorists and anti-nationals conspiring against India.
After several rounds of negotiations failed, the government agreed to suspend the laws earlier this year, but the farmers, who have the backing of powerful unions, said they would not budge until the laws were repealed entirely.
On Friday, farmer leader Rakesh Tikait said the farmers would still not disband their protest camps and rallies until the act of repealing the laws had been carried out in parliament. He also emphasised that more than 700 farmers had died over the past year during the protests against the farm laws.
“At last, all of our hard work paid off … I salute the farmer brothers who were martyred in this battle,” said Tikait.
Previously the Modi government had said it would not bow down to pressure from the farmers over the farm laws. Modi, a strongman prime minister, has until now been unyielding to all mass protests and challenges to his government.
However, it is thought that Modi’s decision to rollback the laws and make a rare public apology is tied to upcoming crucial state elections in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, where farmers make up a crucial proportion of the “vote bank” and farmers’ unions hold significant power and influence. The farm laws had caused a lot of anger in the north Indian states that are the heartland of Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata party (BJP).
Ashutosh Varshney, director of the Centre for Contemporary South Asia at Brown University, said it was the Uttar Pradesh elections “pure and simple” that had motivated the decision.
“If the BJP loses Uttar Pradesh in March, it will open up politics in a way that can have huge implications in 2024 [the general election].”
Varshney said the rollback made Modi look “potentially vulnerable, not yet decidedly weak”, adding: “This is his first reversal when faced with a movement. “It will encourage other movements but Modi will back down only if the protest threatens the BJP electorally. Otherwise Modi can ride it out.”
An opposition MP, Palaniappan Chidambaram, said in a tweet: “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!”
In his speech, Modi said he was repealing the laws because he lamented that the government had been “unable to convince farmers”.
“Whatever I did was for farmers,” the prime minister said. “What I am doing is for the country.”
Amarinder Singh, former chief minister of Punjab state, which is home to many of the protesting farmers, tweeted: “Thankful to PM Narendra Modi … for acceding to the demands of every Punjabi.”