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Politics

India's Supreme Court puts contentious farm laws on hold

Judges to set up expert group to hear farmers' grievances after 'lesson' to Modi

Farmers participate in a tractor rally to protest against the newly passed farm bills, on a highway on the outskirts of New Delhi, India, Jan. 7.   © Reuters

NEW DELHI -- India's Supreme Court on Tuesday suspended the implementation of three new controversial agriculture laws that have sparked widespread protests from farmers who want the rules repealed on fears for their livelihoods.

The laws, cleared by parliament in September, are now on hold and the court has also decided to set up an expert committee to hear the grievances of the farmers, who also say the new legal framework will benefit big companies and put them at a disadvantage. The court judgment came after a batch of petitions challenging the laws.

The Supreme Court ruling "is certainly a setback" to the government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and "questions its capability in handling the situation", a political analyst said. "It also gives us a lesson that anybody ruling the country must pay attention to [what] people want."

Thousands of farmers have been camping on the outskirts of the capital New Delhi for nearly 50 days in protest at the government's plan to liberalize the agriculture sector. Eight rounds of talks between their leaders and the government have so far failed to break the impasse, and the next round is expected on Friday.

Rakesh Tikait, a prominent leader of the farmers, said the protests would continue until the contentious laws have been withdrawn. "We will not go back home and [will] stay put at the protest site until our demand is met," he said after the court order.

The government said the latest agricultural reforms would bring transparency and accelerate growth in the sector; attract private investment in supply chains and farm infrastructure; and create new employment opportunities in rural areas. About half of India's workforce is employed in agriculture, a sector that contributes 15% to the country's gross domestic product.

Farmers, however, fear the reforms will lead to the dismantling of government-regulated wholesale markets and the minimum support price that they receive for their crops, leaving them at the mercy of private companies that may have the clout to dictate prices.

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