New Delhi, India – Tens of thousands of farmers are holding demonstrations across India to mark a year of their protest against three controversial agricultural laws, despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement that they will be repealed.
In a fantastic U-turn Ahead of crucial elections in key states, Modi said on Friday that the laws would be rolled back when India’s parliament convenes later this month. Although the farmers’ unions welcomed the move, they decided not to end their protest until the laws were formally withdrawn.
Modi’s government had adopted the three disputed laws in September 2020, and said that they aimed to “modernize” agriculture. The government argued that the legislation would benefit farmers by increasing their incomes and giving them more choices when selling their products.
But farmers’ unions said the laws would allow a few private companies to control India’s large agricultural sector and deny growers a minimum government-guaranteed price (MSP) for their products.
In November last year, hundreds of thousands of farmers – most from the grain states of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh – marched on New Delhi to demand the repeal of farm laws. When they were stopped from entering the national capital, they camped on three major highways leading to the city. Since then, they have not left the seats.
Farmers will demonstrate and hold tractor meetings and other events across the big country on Friday, ignoring Modi’s appeal to them to return to their homes.
“Right now it is nobody’s loss or gain. But this government has gone to negotiations now,” Bhartiya Kisan Union (Indian Farmers Union) leader Rakesh Tikait told Al Jazeera earlier this week.
“The day this government comes to the table with a pure heart, that day we will find a solution.”
“We do not trust this man”
Earlier this week, Al Jazeera visited a small group of farmers at one of the main protest sites in Ghazipur on the outskirts of the capital New Delhi, and read and discussed news from Hindi newspapers.
By rejecting Modi’s appeal to return to his homes, the outraged peasants have decided to stay until the laws are formally abolished in parliament.
“We do not trust this man,” said Abdesh Kumar Jha, 87, a farmer from Bihar’s Madhubani district who traveled to Ghazipur in February to take part in the protest.
“Modi is not a king and his words can not automatically be turned into a law. We are a democracy and not a monarchy. The way these laws were passed in parliament, we want them to be scrapped in the same way in parliament,” Jha said. while others nodded in agreement.
On Monday, thousands of farmers held a mass rally in Lucknow, the capital of India’s most populous state of Uttar Pradesh, where elections are set to begin early next year. In opinion polls, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) hopes to retain power.
Tikait, an influential peasant leader from western Uttar Pradesh, said that if Modi’s government did not agree to their demands, they would campaign against the party in the upcoming election.
“If this government does not listen to us, we will oppose it in the areas where it has the political strength. Why should we not campaign against this government if it does not accept our demands? ”
Apart from a law on MSP, the farmers also want the government to withdraw a draft electricity bill which they fear would lead to the state governments withdrawing their right to free or subsidized power, which is mainly used for irrigation.
They are also demanding compensation for the families of nearly 700 farmers who lost their lives during the year-long protest, according to several farmers’ unions.
They also want the government to release fines and other penalties for stump burning after harvesting their crops. Smoke has become an important source of air pollution in New Delhi and satellite cities bordering the crop-producing northern states.
“They must give us a guaranteed MSP on our crops. Who will compensate the families of over 700 farmers we lost during the protest. Who will take care of their families? These are the issues that need to be addressed first,” Jha told Al Jazeera.
“We will not go anywhere unless our problems are solved.”
Kishan Singh, 74, from Mathura in Uttar Pradesh, agreed with Jha, saying: “If not and until this government and Prime Minister does not accept all our demands, we will not return to our homes.”
Singh said Modi decided to repeal the laws due to the upcoming state election.
“The [BJP] want votes. They do not love the country’s farmers or its people. They need votes and that is why they have decided to withdraw these laws “, he told Al Jazeera, adding that he voted for the party in the last two elections but regrets his decision now.
“They have let us down. Modi had promised that he would double the incomes of farmers and had talked about increasing the MSP for crops when he was Gujarat’s prime minister. What happened to those promises?” asked Singh.
Al Jazeera contacted a BJP spokesman, but he declined to comment.
Gilles Verniers, a columnist and political scientist at Ashoka University outside New Delhi, told Al Jazeera that the timing of Modi’s announcement was a strong indication that the decision to repeal the agricultural laws was “governed by electoral considerations”.
“But the unusual nature of this decision suggests that it may have been taken for other reasons. First, the peasant protest became a symbol of India’s democratic decline and has contributed significantly to the deterioration of the Prime Minister’s image abroad,” he said.
“Second, the Supreme Court’s decision to suspend the laws pending a settlement of the dispute with farmers, combined with their determination to oppose those laws, made their implementation very unlikely.”
Verniers said there was a “deep mistrust” among the peasants against Modi’s government.
– The repeal of the farm laws was central to the farmers’ demands but not their only aspect. The problems facing agriculture are still as prominent as ever and farmers still expect the state to intervene to support them. “