Indian farmers joyful but cautious after government backs down

Prime Minister Narendra Modi said on Friday that his government would repeal three agriculture laws

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Indian farmer Rajpal Singh Yadav says he smiled on Friday for the first time in a year since he rode his tractor to a protest camp on the outskirts of the Indian capital, after Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised to repeal three controversial agriculture laws.

Standing by his tractor trolley converted into a camper at a makeshift “tent city” at the Ghazipur border with New Delhi, the 60-year-old farmer from Rampur district in northern Uttar Pradesh state ate sweets and hugged his compatriots amid the deafening din of firecrackers, cheers and patriotic songs.

“I have mixed feelings. I am glad that a year after our struggle began, Modi finally heard us. It is our victory and I am certainly happy but these are just words,” Mr Yadav told The National.

In a surprising about-turn, Mr Modi told the nation that he would repeal the three laws that had triggered the single biggest challenge to his government since it came to power in 2014.

The legislation led to widespread street protests and became a political flashpoint, forcing his government to call for their annulment in the coming parliamentary session.

“Maybe something was lacking in our efforts which is why we could not convince some farmers about the laws. But today is not the time to blame anyone,” Mr Modi said in televised speech on Friday morning.

“I want to tell the country that we have decided to repeal the three farm laws.”

Mr Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party bulldozed through the laws through Parliament in September last year in what the government said was the country biggest overhaul of the country's agriculture sector.

The laws, which have been suspended for 18 months by the Supreme Court, deal with the sale of produce on the free market, contract farming and deregulating food commodities from government control, sparking strong resistance from farmers in Punjab and Haryana — the breadbasket states of India.

Opponents called the laws a “death warrant” over fears that they would benefit big businesses and leave small farmers at their mercy in a country where about half of the country's 1.3 billion people are engaged in agriculture, directly and indirectly.

Agricultural workers and other opponents organised several local protests before tens of thousands of farmers set off on foot and by tractor for New Delhi to press their demands.

They were violently stopped by police at the entry points to the capital on November 26.

Following the clashes, the farmers attempted to block the main roads into Delhi and organised sit-ins at the capital’s entry points, beginning a year-long logjam after talks between the government and farmers' unions failed.

Since then, carrying mattresses, blankets and provisions, millions of farmers from Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh have set up camp in several areas. They braved bone-chilling cold, scorching summer heat and incessant rains amid a devastating pandemic as they challenged the government.

“We have given a tight slap to this government with our determination and resilience,” Avtar Singh, 55, a farmer from Punjab, told The National at the protest site in Singhu, one of the three main encampments near the capital.

“We are overjoyed but also being cautious. Modi has verbally announced it but we don't trust him. We are not moving an inch from Singhu or other protest sites until the laws are cancelled,” he said.

We are not moving an inch from Singhu or other protest sites until the laws are cancelled
Avtar Singh, farmer

Farmers' unions spearheading the agitation have also said they will not vacate the protest sites until the government brings the necessary legislation to Parliament and meets their other demands.

Agricultural workers in particular are demanding a nationwide law to provide a minimum support price (MSP) system that guarantees minimum rates for their produce.

So far, price support schemes have been offered by individual states under their policy frameworks.

“I am not happy; I welcome the move but I will be happy when we get a guarantee on MSP to sell our crops. We won’t quit our agitation at any cost unless we get that,” Om Prakash Commando, a farmer from Aligarh, said.

Devinder Sharma, an agriculture expert, said forcing the government to repeal the laws was a “remarkable feat” but still only a “half victory” for farmers unless the government passed the MSP legislation.

“The government will have to step in and see that MSP becomes a legal right and no trading takes place below the MSP that it announces for various crops,” Mr Sharma told The National.

“The bigger crisis is how to take out farmers from the severe agrarian distress that prevails,” he said.

Analysts say the unprecedented move by Mr Modi — known for his iron-fisted rule — is purely for political reasons as the ruling party’s image was dented by the year-long agitation by farmers, considered a key voter bloc.

Five Indian states, including the bellwether state of Uttar Pradesh, along with Punjab, are holding elections early next year.

Farmers' unions across the poll-bound states went after Mr Modi, calling his policies “anti-poor” and “pro-rich” and putting the powerful leader on the back foot.

“This has certainly taken off some of the sheen from his charisma because Modi never takes back a decision,” Arathi Jerath, a Delhi-based political analyst, told The National.

“I don't know if the farmers are necessarily going to give Modi the brownie points he's looking for … he has done it from a position of weakness rather than from a position of strength.”

Updated: November 21, 2021, 5:29 AM