MODI’S U-TURN ON
INDIA’S FARM LAWS
In a thumping victory for farmers, the Indian government has withdrawn three farm laws – the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020, the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020, and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020 – that had sparked year-long protests. The historic development came on the opening day of the winter session of the Indian parliament when both of its houses rushed through a bill to scrap the three controversial farm laws.
It is to be remembered here that farmers constitute a particularly influential voting bloc in India, where over 50% of the population is reliant on agriculture to make a living. Farming accounts for about 15% of the nation’s $2.7 trillion economy and over two-thirds of farmers in the country own less than 1 hectare (2½ acres) of land.
The announcement also came on the day when Sikhs, who made up most of the protesters, celebrate the birth anniversary of Guru Nanak, who founded Sikhism.
The laws have particularly alienated the Sikh community, which makes up the majority of the population in Punjab.
Initially, the government had tried to discredit the Sikh farmers, with some leaders in Modi’s party calling them “anti-nationals” and “Khalistanis,” a derogatory reference to a movement for an independent Sikh homeland.
Such allegations backfired, further angering the farmers.
The Farm Laws Repeal Bill, 2021, which sought to rescind the three laws passed in September 2020 by the Modi regime regarding the sale, pricing and storage of farm crops, was passed by Lok Sabha within minutes and, thereafter, it was introduced in Rajya Sabha and approved by voice vote. The whole exercise was completed within two hours. In both Houses, opposition parties, led by Congress, demanded a discussion over the repeal bill but couldn’t get it initiated. In Rajya Sabha, India’s Agriculture Minister, Narendra Singh Tomar, said, “There is no need for a discussion as the opposition parties had been seeking repeal of the laws and the government was now doing it.”
These three controversial laws had triggered a massive agitation by farmer bodies, especially in Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana states. Though the implementation of the law had been stayed by the Supreme Court, farmer bodies have been squatting on roads leading to the national capital for just over a year.
The legislation the farmers objected to deregulated the sector, allowing farmers to sell products to buyers beyond government-regulated wholesale markets, where growers are assured of a minimum support price (MSP). Although Modi said that “the laws were to empower small farmers,” and that it was the “government’s failure” that it could not “convince some farmers who have been opposing the new laws,” farmers were wary of these changes as they made them vulnerable to competition from big business, and that they could eventually lose price support for staples such as wheat and rice. Hence, the laws quickly became a major source of contention among India’s millions of farmers, who accused the government of passing the laws without consultation.
The repeal of the contentious agriculture laws, on the other hand, has represented a rare retreat for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, with some saying his “strongman” image has taken a hit because of it.
The Modi government had also exhorted that these laws will provide market access and will provide farmers with an alternative for selling their produce outside markets and without attracting any tax. This rollback, therefore, is a big blow to the free market access as promised by these farm laws.
Another benefit of the farm laws as explained by the Modi government was to facilitate remunerative prices for farmers through competitive alternative trading channels but this announcement of rolling these laws back is a setback to all the perks offered by the laws to the farmers.
With the repeal of these laws, the long impending demand of the farmers sitting on the protest for the last many months is fulfilled. It is a big win for farmers, who carried out one of the longest protests across the country. With the rollback of this reform, the farmers did lose so many ‘promised’ changes, this major policy U-turn by PM Modi is a dent on his strongman image as well. But time will tell what impact this decision will have on farmers and poll-bound states.
The rollback of agricultural laws has now shown that Modi’s government is not impervious to popular pressure and that, with determined effort, it can be made to reverse its policies, which could put the government in a tough spot when it comes to introducing reforms in the future.
The decision came ahead of elections in key states such as Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, which are significant agricultural producers and where Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is eager to shore up its support. The timing means that the government will find it hard to convince the farmers that the repeal is more than mere political expediency.
The writer is a PhD scholar (English Literature). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org