Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi says he has decided to repeal three controversial farm laws against which farmers have protested for more than a year.
“Today I have come to tell you, the whole country, that we have decided to withdraw all three agricultural laws,” Modi said on Friday in a contrite address to the nation coinciding with a major Sikh festival – the religion of many protesting farmers.
“In the Parliament session starting later this month, we will complete the constitutional process to repeal these three agricultural laws.”
The legislation the farmers object to, introduced in September last year, deregulates the sector, allowing farmers to sell produce to buyers beyond government-regulated wholesale markets, where growers are assured of a minimum price (MSP).
Small farmers say the changes make them vulnerable to competition from big business, and that they could eventually lose price support for staples such as wheat and rice.
The government says reform of the sector, which accounts for about 15 percent of the $2.7 trillion economy, means new opportunities and better prices for farmers.
The laws were to empower small farmers, but the government failed to convince some farmers who have been opposing the new laws, Modi said.
What cannot be achieved by democratic protests can be achieved by the fear of impending elections!
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!
— P. Chidambaram (@PChidambaram_IN) November 19, 2021
Farmers say protests to continue
Welcoming Modi’s announcement, farmer leader Darshan Pal said it was an “achievement of the farmers’ movement”.
“This is due to the unity of farmers, their continuous struggle and I congratulate the farming community for their unity, their struggle that they have finally won,” Pal told Al Jazeera.
“Ultimately, after one year of struggle, in spite of 700 martyrdoms, facing repression from the BJP government, the farmers have won,” he said, referring to Modi’s governing Bharatiya Janata Party.
— Kisan Ekta Morcha (@Kisanektamorcha) November 19, 2021
Rakesh Tikait of the Bhartiya Kisan Union (Indian Farmers Union) said the farmers’ “agitation will not be withdrawn immediately”.
“We will wait for the day when agricultural laws will be repealed in Parliament. Along with MSP, the government should also discuss other issues of farmers,” he tweeted.
The government had so far yielded very little to the drawn-out demonstrations that posed one of the biggest political challenges to Modi, who swept polls for the second time in 2019.
“Congratulations for this victory against injustice. Hail India, hail the farmer of India,” tweeted Rahul Gandhi of the main opposition Congress party.
In November last year, the farmers escalated their movement by hunkering down on the outskirts of New Delhi, where they have camped out for nearly a year, including through a harsh winter and a coronavirus surge that devastated India earlier this year.
While the farmers’ protest movement has been largely peaceful, demonstrators in January broke through police barricades to storm the historic Red Fort in the older quarters of Delhi. One protester was killed in the clashes with police and hundreds of others were injured.
Last month, another eight people were killed during protests in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh state, where Modi’s BJP hopes to retain power in assembly elections due early next year.
Four farmers died when a convoy allegedly belonging to a government minister and his son slammed into a group of protesters at Lakhimpur Kheri district in Uttar Pradesh.
Angry demonstrators then set fire to several cars and four other people were killed.
In recent months, the protest sites had thinned out, but a hardcore contingent remained and major demonstrations had been expected for the one-year anniversary of the start of the rallies later this month.
“Whether it was fear of losing Uttar Pradesh or finally facing up to conscience, BJP government rolls back farm laws,” Mahua Moitra, a legislator from the Trinamool Congress Party and one of Modi’s staunchest critics, said on Twitter.
“Just the beginning of many more victories for people’s voices.”