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Modi U-turn on farm laws clears decks

By APARAJIT CHAKRABORTY in New Delhi | China Daily | Updated: 2021-11-20 09:08
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Farmers feed each other sweets and celebrate as they pose for pictures after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that he will repeal the controversial farm laws, at the Ghazipur farmers protest site near Delhi-UP border, India, November 19, 2021. [Photo/Agencies]

The flagged repeal of controversial farm laws by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Friday delighted protesting farmers, but they vow the battle won't end until lawmakers seal the demise of the legislation.

Modi made the surprise announcement during a televised speech. He urged the protesters to return home and said the constitutional process to repeal the three laws will begin in December when parliament sits for the winter session.

"Let us make a fresh start," Modi said in the address.

The farm laws that prompted yearlong protests from tens of thousands of farmers had posed a significant political challenge to the Modi government. The demonstrations have been led by farmers in the northern states, with members of the Sikh community prominent in the campaign. The sector accounts for about 15 percent of the $2.7 trillion economy.

Opposition parties welcomed the decision, with Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi calling it "a win against injustice".

The laws were passed in September last year and the government had defended them as necessary to modernize India's agricultural sector and boost production through private investment. But the farmers took to the streets, with their leaders saying the laws would slash their earnings by ending guaranteed pricing and forcing them to sell their crops to corporations at cheaper prices.

These perceived threats to their income terrified India's farmers, who mostly work on a small scale: More than two-thirds of them own less than 1 hectare of land, The Associated Press reported.

Calling the announcement a major victory for farmers across the country, farmers' union leader Rakesh Tikiat said the yearlong protest will not end immediately and insisted the farmers won't step back until the contentious legislation is repealed in parliament.

"We will wait for the day when the farm laws are repealed in Parliament. Along with MSP, the government should talk to farmers on other issues too," Tikait tweeted, referring to the minimum support price.

Welcoming Modi's announcement, another farmer leader, Darshan Pal, said the government backdown marked an "achievement of the farmers' movement".

Modi couched the scrapping of the farm laws in the context of the government's failure to convey the benefits of the reform.

"We haven't been able to explain to our 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."

Since Nov 26, 2020, tens of thousands of farmers have camped out on major highways around Delhi demanding the complete repeal of the laws. They also set up protest camps along the national highways into the capital. Police put up barricades, used tear gas and water cannon to disperse the protesters at highly publicized encounters over the past year. During that time, dozens of protesters died either from exposure to the heat or the cold at the protest sites, in addition those who succumbed to COVID-19.

The protests turned violent on Jan 26, India's Republic Day, when irate farmers stormed into the center of Delhi and briefly took over the centuries-old Red Fort, from where Modi usually addresses the nation on the day. Clashes with police left one protester dead and hundreds injured.

The announcement on Friday morning came on the day that Sikhs-the dominant community in the northern state of Punjab-celebrate the birth anniversary of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism.

Political masterstroke

Modi's decision will be seen as a political masterstroke ahead of some key state polls, particularly in Punjab, The Associated Press commented.

Farmers in Punjab and Haryana states celebrated the news on Friday, raising flags of victory and distributing sweets. But they were quick to repeat the refrain that their focus is on parliament.

"We have no faith in a verbal promise. Unless we see it in writing that the laws have actually been repealed, we will stay here," said Ramvir Singh, a 76-year-old farmer manning a site in Ghazipur, an entry point between Delhi and Haryana. Ramvir was celebrating along with hundreds of his fellow campaigners.

Experts say the upcoming state elections in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh-where farmers make up a crucial proportion of voters-may have forced the government's hand. The farmers' unions also hold significant power and influence there.

The farm laws had triggered much anger in the northern Indian states that make up the heartland of Modi's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.

Agencies via Xinhua contributed to this story.

The writer is a freelance journalist for China Daily.

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