By Vatican News staff reporter
Indian Catholic Church officials have hailed Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement of the repeal of 3 controversial farm laws that forced farmers to stage one of the country’s longest public protests in which close to 700 farmers have died.
According to Bishop Alex Vadakumthala of Kannur, chairman of the Office for Labour of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI), it is “really a very welcome decision in the interests of farmers and the nation as a whole".
“The perseverance of the farmers finally prevailed. If the government was not adamant and had consulted the farmers before enacting those laws, the inconvenience to the farmers could have been avoided,” he told UCA News, adding, “Our farmers are our backbone.”
In a surprise television announcement on Nov. 19, the birth anniversary of Guru Nanak, founder of the Sikh religion, Modi said the laws would be repealed in the winter parliamentary session which kicks off on Nov. 29. Many Punjabi farmers are Sikhs.
The Prime Minister said the laws were enacted for the welfare of the farmers, but added: “We haven’t been able to explain to our farmers. This is not a time to blame anyone.”
Modi’s announcement came as farmers were planning to intensify their protest from Nov. 26 to mark the anniversary of their protest. Samyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM), an umbrella body of 40 farm unions that spearheaded the protest, welcomed Modi's announcement.
700 farmers’ lives lost in protests
The 2020–2021 Indian farmers' agitation is an ongoing protest against three farm acts that were passed by the Parliament of India in September 2020: Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, and Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act introduced in November 2021.
Farmers’ unions reacted by holding local protests, mostly in Punjab. After two months of protests, the unions, mainly from Punjab and Haryana, began a movement to march to the Indian capital, Delhi. The government ordered the police and security forces to attack the protesters using water cannons, batons, and tear gas to prevent the farmer unions from entering into Haryana state first and then Delhi. The farmers have since protested in New Delhi even after police blocked roads and disconnected power and water supply to their tents.
There has been a nationwide court stay order on the farm laws since January 2021. During the year-long protest, close to 700 farmers reportedly died for reasons including violence and suicide.
“The government should consider compensating the families of the farmers who died, as in cases of natural calamity or epidemics,” Bishop Vadakumthala told UCA News.
Bishop Gerald Almeida of Jabalpur, chairman of CBCI’s Justice, Peace and Development Commission, said the failure of the government to conduct a thorough study before enacting the laws created the problems.
Many farmers’ unions have described Modi’s legislations as "anti-farmer laws", and politicians from the opposition say they would leave farmers at the "mercy of corporates". The farmers have also demanded the creation of a Minimum Support Price (MSP) bill, to ensure that corporates cannot control the prices.
“Farmers get a benefit only when there is a fixed rate for their crops and only the government can ensure it,” Bishop Almeida told UCA News. “The government promised to double the income of farmers with these laws but did nothing other than increasing the prices of fertilizers and other means the farmers require for farming.” He described the laws as “a body blow to small and marginal farmers, and even medium farmers faced its brunt as private parties seldom provided a fixed rate to farmers”.
The farmers are also demanding a statutory guarantee of remunerative prices for all agricultural produce and for all farmers. Farmers had vowed to continue their protest as long as Modi remained in power and refused to accept any compromise other than the repeal of the laws. “It is better now than never,” Bishop Almeida said welcoming Modi’s announcement.
An election move
According to Bishop Almeida, the upcoming assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab among other states could be the motive behind the government’s sudden about-turn.
Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state with more than 220 million people, is a stronghold of Modi’s pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) but pre-poll opinion surveys indicate a loss of more than 100 seats to the party. Punjab, the only Sikh-dominated state, has not even allowed BJP party leaders to hold public programmes. (Source: UCA News)