India’s Prime Minister to scrap farm laws in an unprecedented u-turn

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will scrap three controversial farm laws that led to angry street protests over the last year.

In a televised address to the nation on Friday, Modi apologized for failing to convince a section of farmers and said the parliament will repeal the legislation by end of the month.

The announcement comes ahead of key provincial polls in the state of Uttar Pradesh and Punjab where farmers are an influential voting bloc.

The long drawn protests by hundreds of thousands of farmers could have hurt his Bharatiya Janata Party’s chances in both elections.

The government had, so far, refused to budge from its position which the protesters claimed would ruin their livelihoods, making it the longest stand-off since Modi swept to power seven years ago.

While Modi has backtracked on policy moves by his government earlier, including on land laws, that move hadn’t resulted in long drawn public protests.

The government had insisted the new policy would benefit the growers and refused to withdraw the legislation. The Supreme Court too had ordered temporary suspension of the laws, but the protesting farmers had refused to compromise.

Farmers represent a potentially huge vote bloc: Some 60% of India’s nearly 1.4 billion people depend on agriculture in one way or another.

Both Uttar Pradesh and Punjab have large farming communities. The announcement came on the day India is marking a holiday to celebrate the birth anniversary of the founder of Sikhism. The Sikh community is a significant vote base in Punjab.

The main contention about the agricultural reforms was the shift to a free market regime for sale of farm goods — a move that farmers saw as a means to end a state price support system for crops and which they feared would leave them at the mercy of big corporations that would control the market.

Also, central to Modi’s reforms was an amendment to the Essential Commodities Act, a 1955 law, that sought to cap prices during times of higher demand — which discouraged investment to increase production.