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After a year of massive protests, India will repeal controversial farm laws

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Farmers are celebrating at protest camps in northern India.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in Hindi).

MARTINEZ: "Long live farmers" is what you can hear them chanting there. That's sound from a protest camp north of New Delhi. They're reacting to a surprise announcement by India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In a televised speech this morning, Modi said he would repeal three controversial farm laws that had triggered nearly a year of protests against his government. Some are calling this a victory for nonviolent protests. Others say Modi is backing down from much-needed reforms. NPR's India correspondent Lauren Frayer is in a farming community in western India. She joins us live from there. Lauren, what are these farm laws aimed at doing?

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: These are three laws that were passed in September 2020 that sought to deregulate Indian agriculture. India has this huge farming sector. About two-thirds of Indians make a living from farming. That's hundreds of millions of people. And the government plays a big role in the industry. It supervises all crop sales. Now, these laws changed that. The government would let the free market in and allow farmers to sell directly to big companies. And some farmers, particularly rice and wheat growers in the north, didn't like that. They liked the government playing a role. They feared being undercut by big business. And they launched these protests, which have been going on for nearly a year. And they've ultimately become the biggest challenge to Modi's rule.

MARTINEZ: So what did Modi say today? And what's the reaction been where you are?

FRAYER: So Modi gave a really conciliatory speech. He apologized. And that was shocking. I mean, I can't think of another example of Modi backing down in such a blatant way. He has an absolute majority in Parliament. He pretty much has the power to rule however he likes. And so the reaction has been massive celebrations among farmers in the north, where they had built these big protest encampments blocking highways. I called a protest leader there. His name is V.M. Singh.

V M SINGH: It's brave of the prime minister to take a decision like this, No. 1. No. 2, what he had promised us in 2013, '14, let him walk the talk on that account.

FRAYER: He wants to see more, specifically price guarantees, that he says Modi promised in 2013, '14 and never delivered.

MARTINEZ: Hate to sound skeptical, Lauren, when a politician all of a sudden changes his mind.

FRAYER: It's rare.

MARTINEZ: So why did he change his mind? Why is he repealing these laws?

FRAYER: Yeah, so Modi says he realized he made a mistake. On TV today, he apologized to the nation. He said he has a sincere and pure heart. Now, another reason Modi might be doing this, though, is politics. Today is a holiday for followers of the Sikh faith. Lots of protesting farmers are Sikhs from the northern state of Punjab. That is being seen as a gracious gesture on their holy day. Punjab also holds elections early next year, though. It is currently ruled by the opposition. Modi wants to make inroads there. Farmer protests have really been a rallying cry for the opposition there.

MARTINEZ: I knew there had to be something else. All right, so what happens next? I mean, 'cause I can't imagine this issue's going away.

FRAYER: The Supreme Court had already suspended these laws, so Modi now says they will be repealed altogether as soon as Parliament begins its new session in a few weeks. Now, the question is whether protesters will go home now. Some have said they'll believe this when they see it. Down the line, we'll also see if Modi proposes anything to replace these laws. Economists do say Indian agriculture is in desperate need of reform. Today, Modi called for a fresh start. Farmers very much want to see what he puts on the table next.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR's India correspondent Lauren Frayer. Lauren, thanks.

FRAYER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.