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Modi U-turns on Indian farm laws after mass protests

New Delhi – India will scrap agricultural reform laws that sparked a year of huge protests by farmers, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said Friday in a stunning U-turn that sparked celebrations but also criticism from economists.

Thousands of farmers have been camped out on the borders of the capital New Delhi since November last year, handing Modi one of the biggest challenges since his Hindu nationalist government came to power in 2014. The rallies became a lightning rod for opposition to Modi’s administration in a country where two-thirds of the 1.3 billion population rely on agriculture for their livelihood. In a contrite address to the nation coinciding with a major Sikh festival — the religion of many farmers — Modi said the laws would be repealed in parliament’s winter session, which begins later this month.

“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,” the 71-year-old said.

The surprise announcement sparked muted celebrations on Friday with farmers chanting, waving flags and beeping tractor horns at two protest sites outside Delhi. “Until they give it to us in writing, we won’t leave from here. We don’t trust the government,” farmer Gurmeet Singh, 50, told AFP. “Our farmers have died fighting for this. Until it’s passed in the parliament, we won’t leave.”

‘Black day’ 

The reforms passed in September 2020 aimed to deregulate farm produce markets where state bodies have for decades set guaranteed minimum prices for crops. 

Modi reiterated on Friday that the changes would have boosted rural incomes and reformed a hugely inefficient agricultural sector where a vast amount of produce rots before it can be sold. Thousands of Indian farmers commit suicide every year because of poverty, debt and ever more erratic weather patterns caused by climate change. “This is a black day in the history of India’s economic reforms. This is Modi’s worst decision ever,” economist Gautam Chikermane from the Observer Research Foundation think tank told AFP.

“Now there will be no agriculture sector reforms for the next 25 years… These three farm sector reforms would have done to India’s agriculture what the 1991 reforms did to manufacturing and services.”

Big business 

But protesters said the changes — which were suspended pending negotiations with the farmers — would have left farmers at the mercy of big business. The farmers first tried to march on New Delhi last November, but violent clashes police prevented them from entering the capital.

They camped out at two sites outside the city, blocking major highways. In the subsequent months they dug in as their numbers swelled to tens of thousands.