India’s farmers win war to block new bills
India’s supreme court has suspended a series of controversial agriculture laws that have prompted hundreds of thousands of farmers to stage a months-long protest in Delhi over fears for their livelihoods.
Since November, more than half a million farmers have marched to the peripheries of Delhi and occupied roads and highways leading to the capital. They set up a 24-hour protest camp and refused to move until the new farm laws were repealed.
Farmers, mainly from the states of Punjab and Haryana, argued that the new laws were passed by the government without consultation, had exposed them to the mercy of large corporations regarding crop prices, and put them at greater risk of poverty and of losing their land.
The farmers’ protests proved to be one of the greatest political challenges to face Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, since he gained power in 2014. The mass agitation forced the government to the negotiating table, a rare occurrence. Despite eight rounds of talks, however, the sides had remained in deadlock.
After two days of deliberation the supreme court decided yesterday to suspend the laws. Judges ordered the creation of a committee to look into farmers’ grievances, saying they were “extremely disappointed” with how negotiations had gone to date. The judges expressed concern at the lack of consultation with the farmers from legislators. The chief justice, SA Bobde, told the court: “These are matters of life and death. We are concerned with laws … with lives and property of people affected by the agitation. We are trying to solve the problem in the best way. One of the powers we have is to suspend the legislation.”
Many politicians who had expressed anger at the farm laws celebrated the ruling, but it was met with derision by farmers’ leaders, who said that now was “not the time for a committee”.
Unions reiterated that they would not participate in any court-ordered committee process and would not call off their protest until the new legislation was repealed.
“The members of the supremecourt-appointed committee are not dependable as they have been writing on how agri laws are pro-farmer. We will continue our agitation,” said Balbir Singh Rajewal, a farmers’ leader. The farmers plan a tractor rally protest through Delhi on India’s Republic Day, 26 January.
Sixty farmers have died while taking part in the protests, which have involved camping out in makeshift tents in icy winter temperatures.
Some said Modi had suffered a setback, the supreme court being widely seen as usually favourable to the ruling government. Other observers suggested the farm law susension gave the government a way out of the negotiation deadlock without appearing to bow to farmers’ demands.