India: Modi scraps controversial agriculture laws after farmers hold mass protests

ITV News International Affairs Editor Rageh Omaar explains why this is so significant in India

India’s prime minister Narendra Modi said on Friday that his government will withdraw the controversial agriculture laws that led to mass protests from tens of thousands of farmers across his country. The leader urged protesters to return home and said the process to repeal the laws will begin in December, when India's parliament sits for the winter session.

“Let us make a fresh start,” India's prime minister said during the address.

The laws had allowed farmers to sell their produce directly to private buyers instead of going through the government-regulated markets - something farmers argued would make the market unregulated and result in them losing the Minimum Support Price.

Mr Modi scrapped the laws ahead of key elections in states like Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, and on the day of the Guru Purab festival, when Punjab Sikhs, who made up most of the protesters, celebrate their founder Guru Nanak’s birthday.

Why was the law so controversial?

The new legislation was passed in September 2021, despite months of protests from thousands of angry farmers - which saw temporary houses being set up as groups blocked roads to try and get the government's attention.

The government defended the legislation, saying it was necessary to modernise India’s agricultural sector and boost production through private investment.

But farmers said it would devastate their earnings by ending guaranteed pricing and force them to sell their crops to corporations at cheaper prices. The perceived threats to their income terrified farmers, who mostly work on a small scale: More than two-thirds of them own less than 1 hectare (2 1/2 acres) of land. Clauses in the legislation also prevented farmers from resolving contract disputes in court, leaving them with no independent means to challenge disputes apart from via government-appointed bureaucrats.

Narendra Modi (pictured), India's prime minister, made the announcement to scrap the laws in a live, televised address. Credit: AP

Tens of thousands of farmers protest

The government initially engaged with farmers and offered to suspend the laws for 18 months in an effort to end the most serious challenge to Mr Modi.

But the farmers continued to press for a full repeal and called for strikes across the country.

Initially, the government had tried to discredit the Sikh farmers by dismissing their concerns as motivated by religious nationalism, who wanted to break away from the Indian state. These allegations backfired, further angering the farmers.

The protests escalated in November 2020 as farmers occupied the outskirts of New Delhi, where they had camped out for nearly a year, including through a harsh winter and a Covid surge that devastated India. While the protests have overall been largely peaceful, demonstrators in January broke through police barricades to storm the historic Red Fort in the capital’s centre.

Clashes with police left one protester dead and hundreds injured.

Dozens of farmers died due to suicide, hostile weather conditions and Covid during the demonstrations, leaders said.

Protesters have clashed with police over the course of the past year. Credit: AP

What's been the reaction now the laws have been scrapped?

In response to the prime minister's announcement, Rakesh Tikait, a farmers' leader, said the protesters' hard work had paid off at last.

"Thanks to all the farmer brothers and salute to the farmer brothers who were martyred in this battle”, he said. Samyukt Kisan Morcha, the group of farm unions organising the protests, said it welcomed the government’s announcement - but added the protests would continue until the government assures them guaranteed prices for certain essential crops.

Mr Modi’s decision is seen as a political move ahead of key state elections.

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party is already under pressure over its response to the pandemic and a struggling economy.

Members of Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) protested against the killing of four farmers in Uttar Pradesh earlier this year. Credit: AP

Gilles Verniers, a professor of political science at Ashoka University, said repealing the laws was significant, but added the government would find it hard to convince farmers it scrapped the laws for any reason other than the upcoming elections. “It is highly unusual for the Modi government to retreat or backpedal on a major political decision,” said Mr Verniers.

"The government is likely to spin this as the PM listening to the people, but after a year of hard protest, acrimony and violence, it’s going to be difficult to make that notion adhere."

Farmers begin a day-long hunger strike to protest against new farm laws in India Credit: AP

Opposition leaders, who earlier called the laws exploitative and supported the protests, congratulated the farmers. Rahul Gandhi, of India’s main opposition Congress party, said the country's farmers "made arrogance bow its head" through their opposition to the laws.

“Congratulations on the victory against injustice!”, he said on Twitter.

Farmers in India are highly influential politically and culturally. Many politicians in the country refer to farmers as the heart and soul of India.

Farmers are particularly important to Narendra Modi's core support at elections. Mr Modi's party controls several Indian states that have high populations of farmers.