Farm law repeal must not derail reforms

Rather like his unexpected decision two years ago to withdraw from the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) talks over concerns that the deal would lead to unfavourable trade imbalances, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's announcement to repeal three farm laws that were pushed through Parliament last year came as a surprise. Taken together, the three laws changed decades-old rules around the sale, pricing and storage of farm produce - rules that also exposed farmers to the free market. The laws also aimed to limit distortions that incentivised farmers to continue with unproductive cultivation at a steep cost to the environment. Even Mr Modi's critics acknowledged that the reforms were overdue.

That said, two-thirds of India live in the countryside, the nation is a populist democracy, and the laws hurt the income and interests of a vocal section of wealthy peasants and middlemen. The speed with which the government passed the Bills using its massive majority, and its failure to prepare the ground for the new rules aroused suspicions of bad intent, and provided fodder for the opposition mill. A minister from a key coalition partner that represents Sikhs resigned, and resistance mounted. Through the waves of the Covid-19 pandemic and the harsh North Indian winter, protesters who marched and camped out on New Delhi's outskirts held firm.

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