Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said Friday his government will scrap three controversial farm laws that prompted the biggest protest against his government since he took power seven years ago and emerged as a significant political challenge.

Modi’s unexpected announcement in a televised address to the nation is seen as a major reversal by the government, which had repeatedly defended the laws. It came ahead of crucial regional elections in several states including two — Uttar Pradesh and Punjab – whose farmers have been at the forefront of the protests.

“We have decided to repeal all three farm laws and will begin the procedure at the Parliament session that begins this month,” Modi said. He said it was important that “we have not been able to convince the benefits of these laws to all farmers.”

“I hope the protesting farmers will now return to their homes, return to their farms, and we can start afresh,” he said.

Tens of thousands of farmers from North India have blocked highways around the capital, New Delhi, for a year vowing to stay until the laws that opened the sale of farm produce to the private sector were repealed. Fearing that big corporations would drive down prices and threaten their livelihood, they led one of the biggest mobilizations witnessed in India.

Modi made his address on the day of a Sikh festival, Guru Purab. Many of the protesters on highways were Sikh farmers from Punjab.

His announcement led to a wave of celebrations among farmers, who distributed sweets at the highways where they are camped and shouted slogans of “Long live farmers unity.”

A group of farm unions that has led the yearlong campaign welcomed the move but said the protest would only be ended after the laws are repealed in Parliament when it convenes.

“If this happens, it will be a historic victory of the one-year-long farmers’ struggle in India,” the Samyukt Kisan Morcha said in a statement.

The government said that opening the sale of farm produce to the private sector would help to improve rural incomes that have been declining. The government currently buys 23 crops, including rice and wheat, at a guaranteed price from farmers.

 

Farmers, many of whom own tiny plots of land of less than a hectare, however, feared that the entry of the private sector would drive down prices, and often pointed to states whose farmers had suffered when the government stopped buying their crops.

Their protest has been mostly peaceful, but violence broke out in January when some farmers stormed through police barricades during a march on India’s Republic Day.

Some political observers saw the decision to back down from the laws as “damage control” in a country where farmers form a significant voting bloc – nearly half of its 1.3 billion people depend on the farm sector.

“The elections in Uttar Pradesh early next year are crucial for the Bharatiya Janata Party and they feared loss of political support,” said Neerja Chowdhury, an independent political analyst. “Mr. Modi usually never backs down, but he is also quick to course correct. When he is in a weak position, he is flexible.”

While several economists have said the farm laws were necessary to modernize India’s agriculture and draw in private investment, others said the farmers’ concerns were genuine. Among them is farm economist Devinder Sharma, who said that although the laws’ repeal represents a significant victory for farmers, the battle is “only half-won.”

He said the protest has turned the spotlight on what he calls widespread agrarian distress in the country.

“Mr. Modi said that they were not able to convince the farmers. Actually, they were not able to understand their problem,” according to Sharma. “Farm incomes have either been falling or have been static. This is what needs urgent attention.”

The farmers’ unions indicated that they would press for their second major demand, a separate law guaranteeing a minimum price for crops.

“The agitation of farmers is not just for the repeal of the three black laws, but also for a statutory guarantee to remunerative prices for all agricultural produce and for all farmers. This important demand of farmers is still pending,” it said.

Opposition parties, who had supported the protests, welcomed the government’s decision.

Rahul Gandhi, leader of the Congress Party, tweeted, “The country’s farmers, through their resistance, made arrogance bow its head.”

 

 

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