Why Did India’s Supreme Court Suspend Controversial Farm Laws Now?

Farmers say “pro-government” ruling doesn’t go far enough.

Farmers shout slogans as they depart for Delhi to participate in a continued demonstrations against the central government's recent agricultural reforms in Amritsar on Jan. 12.
Farmers shout slogans as they depart for Delhi to participate in a continued demonstrations against the central government's recent agricultural reforms in Amritsar on Jan. 12. NARINDER NANU/AFP via Getty Images

In a setback to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s agenda on Tuesday, India’s Supreme Court suspended the implementation of the controversial agricultural laws passed last year that pushed hundreds of millions of farmers to go on strike—in some senses, the largest protest in India’s history, and perhaps the world’s. “The [government of] India has to take the responsibility,” the court said on Tuesday. “The laws have resulted in a strike and now you have to solve the strike.”

For India’s farmers, the Supreme Court move doesn’t go far enough—they had been calling for a full repeal of the new farm laws—making it likely that tens of thousands will continue their protests, choking traffic and business around the capital New Delhi.

Economists have long agreed that India’s agriculture sector needed reform: Farmlands are mostly controlled by small families and lack efficiencies of scale, and middlemen often bloat supply chains and suck up profits. But Modi’s market-friendly laws hit an obstacle when farmers—the very people who should benefit from the new rules—said they weren’t consulted.

Why did the farm laws trigger a major protest movement?

Modi pushed three major farm reform bills through Parliament in what the government said was an effort to regularize the country’s farming industry by removing taxes and other financial burdens on farmers. But like many of Modi’s major projects, the farm bills were passed without input from key farming groups or agricultural unions.

According to farmers, the laws represent a unilateral attempt to open up the agricultural industry—which employs about half of the entire Indian workforce—to private interests, while removing the few legal protections keeping many farmers afloat. The legislation makes no mention of the minimum support price, a financial safety net for farmers that guarantees a set payment for key crops even if the market takes a hit.

Protesters began gathering in New Delhi last August, even before the farm bills became law the following month. Tens of thousands of farmers joined from around the country, and the protests reached a peak on Nov. 26, when an estimated 250 million people participated in a 24-hour strike against the reforms—likely the biggest protest in world history.

Farmers have continued to gather in New Delhi and other cities, sometimes cutting off major transport routes with their caravans and temporary camps to disrupt normal business and spur governmental action.

Why did the Supreme Court stay the laws now?

There are a couple of reasons that India’s Supreme Court may have chosen to act to suspend the farm laws now.

Fears are growing that the largely peaceful protests could turn violent or lead to illness amid the Indian winter and the coronavirus pandemic. “We don’t want any injuries or blood on our hands,” Chief Justice Sharad Arvind Bobde said during the hearings this week. Dozens of deaths have been reported during the protests, including at least five farmers who died by suicide and others who succumbed to health issues.

Moreover, public health experts worry that the massive gatherings make social distancing and good sanitation nearly impossible, increasing the chance that the protests become superspreader events. India is besieged by the coronavirus, with 10 million Indians infected and 150,000 dead—most experts believe the real number of people infected to be orders of magnitude greater.

Another reason the court may have taken action now is out of concern that other groups with political motives could co-opt the demonstrations. Attorney General K. K. Venugopal petitioned the court to put a stop to the protests on the grounds that the Khalistan movement, a Sikh separatist group that Modi’s government has previously branded as “terrorists,” had infiltrated the movement.

Officials are particularly concerned about demonstrations planned on Jan. 26 for Republic Day—a national holiday that protest leaders have been preparing for since last year.

Is it all for show?

As part of its ruling, the Supreme Court ordered the creation of a four-person committee to take into account farmers’ grievances and make recommendations. But protest leaders were quick to condemn the picks as pro-government, saying that they wouldn’t accept the committee’s recommendations.

After suffering from declining profits and worsening working conditions for years, some protesters say they worry that neither Modi nor the Supreme Court will fulfill their promises if the demonstration disbands before any legislative actions are final. Per the court’s decision, the committee has up to two months to submit its recommendations after their first meeting date— a much longer wait than many farmers wanted.

For now, protest leaders say they are in it for the long haul.

Katie Livingstone is an intern at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @sassovivente