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How India's farmers faced down their prime minister and won

Thousands of farmers forced India's prime minister into a rare reversal on Nov. 19, when Narendra Modi announced his government would repeal three agricultural reform laws that the farmers feared would shatter livelihoods and allow big corporations to seize control of the sector.

Government's vow to repeal 3 agricultural reform laws met with joy and defiance

Indian farmers gather on the eve of the first anniversary of their protest, on the outskirts of Delhi, at the Tikri border, on Thursday. The farmers vow to keep protesting until three agricultural reform laws that they feared would shatter their livelihoods are officially repealed in Parliament. (Anushree Fadnavis/Reuters)

For 364 days, Hardeep Singh has cooked for his fellow protesters at a sprawling camp on the outskirts of Delhi, while others tended to the rice and wheat crops on his farm some 100 kilometres away.

He endured the cold winter months, followed by the shift to stifling heat and record-breaking monsoon rains. Three times the tent harbouring his community kitchen was ripped by violent storms, three times he had to patch it up.

But Singh, 44, has zero regrets because a full year later, all of those sacrifices have paid off.

He and thousands of other farmers forced India's prime minister into a rare reversal on Nov. 19, when Narendra Modi announced his government would repeal three agricultural reform laws that the farmers feared would shatter livelihoods and allow big corporations to seize control of the sector.

For Singh, "happy" doesn't even begin to describe how farmers are processing the news, although many are determined to stay put until the repeal of the laws is officially passed in India's Parliament — a move that could take a couple of weeks, depending on when the bill is introduced.

Hardeep Singh, left, a farmer who has spent a year manning a community kitchen at one of the protest camps surrounding India's capital, New Delhi, said the news that Prime Minister Narendra Modi was backing down and repealing the controversial farm laws felt like 'winning a war.' (Salimah Shivji/CBC)

"Ever since Modi came to power in 2014, he's never reversed course. This is the first time he's had to back down, of course we feel happy," he said.

"All of the hardship, with farmers of all ages living here [at the camp]," he continued. "It's like winning a war."

Indian diaspora came to aid of farmers

It's a war that was waged with determination — and a significant amount of strategizing from the highly organized farmers' unions — fuelled by aid from the large Indian diaspora community in countries such as Canada, the United States and Britain.

Medical tents and pharmacies were set up at the camps, with doctors of Indian origin living in faraway countries on call to help diagnose those on-site, while funds poured in to keep hundreds of community kitchens running to feed the protesting farmers.

The farmers are prepared to stay at their camps until the laws are officially repealed, and many want more assurances from the Indian government, such as compensation for the families of some 700 farmers who died during the year-long protest. (Salimah Shivji/CBC)

The tens of thousands of farmers protesting in India pulled on that strength overseas, and the movement was able to successfully challenge the government — a development made all the more stunning since Modi has forged a reputation as a leader who does not back down easily.

Walking through the Singhu camp — one of several lining the border with India's capital for the past year — mere days after the prime minister's announcement that he would scrap the controversial laws, there were still outbursts of joy, mingled with defiance.

A water distribution truck whizzed by, full of young farmers cheering and dancing to Punjabi music with a pulsating beat and lyrics disparaging Modi's perceived anti-farmer stance.

Davinder Kumar watches his stand at the Singhu border camp. He's been selling even more merchandise in the days since India's prime minister announced his intention to repeal the controversial farm laws that brought thousands of farmers out in protest for months on end. (Salimah Shivji/CBC)

Elsewhere, a small crowd gathered at a vendor's table stacked with flags and T-shirts carrying farmers' slogans: "No Farmer, No Food, No Future."

"Sales have increased ever since [Modi's] announcement," vendor Davinder Kumar told CBC News. "That's how happy people are, they keep coming in."

Farmers demand compensation

Steps away, Kabal Singh was keen to speak about what more needs to be done.

The 44-year old has been living at the Singhu border protest camp for a year, an eight-hour drive from his meagre plot of land in Fazilka, just 10 kilometres east of India's border with Pakistan.

The farmer, who owns less than a hectare of land, stood at the crowded camp with his hands and feet in chains, to symbolize how he feels India's agricultural workers are treated.

WATCH | Indian farmers continue protest over agricultural laws: 

Indian farmers continue protests until agricultural laws officially repealed

1 year ago
Duration 2:30
A full year after India’s farmers started camping out on the outskirts of Delhi in the biggest and most sustained challenge to the government, Prime Minister Narendra Modi agreed to repeal three controversial laws affecting the agricultural industry. But farmers say they’ll continue to protest until the laws are officially repealed.

"We cannot return to our homes until we get a written law guaranteeing the MSP won't disappear," Singh said, referring to the minimum support price, or assured floor prices, that many farmers get for certain essential crops at government-controlled markets.

The farmers, sensing their political power, are also demanding compensation for the families of those who have died during the protest and the withdrawal of criminal charges against those arrested at demonstrations against the laws.

On Friday, tens of thousands of farmers rallied to celebrate their win and mark the one-year anniversary of their movement.

According to the farmers' unions, some 700 people have died during the year-long protest from illness, road accidents, or suicide.

"It's only a 25 per cent victory," Hardeep Singh, back at the community kitchen, said, even as he declared the farmers' movement has made a big dent in Modi's popularity overseas.

"The longer the movement continues, the more it impacts him negatively," Singh added.

Electoral considerations for Modi

That's one of the reasons political watchers highlight to explain Modi's abrupt reversal of a policy that his government officials spent months defending as a necessary reform while farmers protested.

Another is pure electoral strategy. There is a crucial state legislature vote set for early next year in Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state and a current stronghold for Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and analysts point to anxiety among party leaders after the farmers' movement targeted the campaign.

The results will be seen as a litmus test for the nationwide general election in 2024.

Gilles Verniers, an assistant political science professor at Ashoka University, sees the farmers' victory as an important sign for 'India's battered democracy,' indicating that a large-scale and largely peaceful protest can still bring change to policy. (CBC)

"This is a government, a prime minister, that puts politics ahead of absolutely everything. Electoral consideration always trumps policy considerations," said Gilles Verniers, an assistant professor of political science at Ashoka University, near Delhi.

Still, the manner in which Modi revealed his decision to roll back one of his biggest recent economic reforms was telling, according to Verniers, who called it a "half-hearted apology."

The prime minister apologized not for the substance of the laws that will now be repealed, but for the manner in which his government failed to communicate and build a consensus for why reform was necessary.

"I want to say with a pure and true heart that something may have fallen short," Modi said in his televised address. "We failed to explain it to some of our farmer brothers."

Agriculture sector needs reforms, party says

But agricultural reform is still on the table, Gopal Krishna Agarwal, the BJP's national spokesperson for economic issues, told CBC News.

"More communication is required, and that will be done. But ultimately the agriculture sector needs reforms," he said, adding that a committee has already been formed to discuss the next steps.

Farmers feed each other sweets and celebrate as they pose for pictures after Modi announced on Nov. 19 that he will repeal the controversial farm laws, at the Ghazipur farmers protest site near the Delhi-Uttar Pradesh border. (Anushree Fadnavis/Reuters)

"The prime minister, in his address, also said that these laws ... are beneficial for the farmers and we need to convince them more," Agarwal said.

"Ultimately, farmers will have to understand that the status quo will not help them."

The tens of thousands of farmers who've spent a year protesting might be difficult to convince, considering what they've already gained: a major win against a government that's more prone to squash dissent than to concede defeat.

"It's an important moment for India's battered democracy," Verniers said. "It shows that collective action can work, that the will of this government can be bent through resolve."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Salimah Shivji

Journalist

Salimah Shivji is CBC's India correspondent, based in Mumbai. She has been a senior reporter with CBC's Parliamentary Bureau and has covered everything from climate change to corruption across Canada.

With files from The Associated Press

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