NEW DELHI — Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India announced Friday that his government would repeal contentious farm laws aimed at overhauling the country’s struggling agriculture sector, in a surprise concession to yearlong protests by angry farmers.
“We have decided to repeal all three farm laws, and will begin the procedure at the Parliament session that begins this month,” Mr. Modi said in a televised address. “I urge the protesting farmers to return home to their families, and let’s start afresh.”
Protest leaders greeted Mr. Modi’s turnaround with cautious optimism, with plans to meet in New Delhi to discuss next steps.
Many of the protesters come from India’s minority Sikh community, and Mr. Modi timed his announcement for Guru Nanak Jayanti, a holiday celebrated by Sikhs all over the world.
Ramandeep Singh Mann, a farmer leader and activist, said he was “ecstatic” after hearing the news. “Like you’ve conquered Mount Everest!” he said.
What remains unclear, Mr. Mann said, is whether the government will agree to the farmers’ other major demand: a separate law guaranteeing a minimum price for crops.
For now, he said, farmers would continue their siege outside the borders of New Delhi until Parliament formally repealed the three laws.
“Until that day, we will be there,” he said.
Mr. Modi’s government had stood firmly behind the market-friendly laws it passed last year, even as the farmers refused any compromise short of repealing them. The protesters remained in their tents through last year’s harsh winter, the summer heat and a deadly Covid-19 wave that caused havoc in New Delhi.
Mr. Modi’s government had argued that the new laws would bring private investment into a sector that more than 60 percent of India’s population still depends on for their livelihood — but has been lagging in its contribution to India’s economy.
But the farmers, already struggling under heavy debt loads and bankruptcies, feared that reduced government regulations would leave them at the mercy of corporate giants.
The repeal of the laws comes as Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party revs up its campaign in an upcoming election in the north Indian states of Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Uttarakhand, where many of the protesting farmers live.
After more than a dozen rounds of failed negotiations, farmers changed tactics this fall, shadowing top officials of Mr. Modi’s government as they traveled and campaigned across northern India, ensuring their grievances would be hard to ignore.
During one such confrontation in October, a B.J.P. convoy rammed into a group of protesting farmers in Uttar Pradesh, killing four protesters along with four other people, including a local journalist. The son of one of Mr. Modi’s ministers is among those under investigation for murder in the episode.
Jagdeep Singh, whose father, Nakshatra Singh, 54, was among those killed, said the decision to repeal the laws served as homage to those who had died in the difficult conditions of a year of protests — whether from exposure to extreme temperatures, heart attacks, Covid or more. According to one farm leader, some 750 protesters have died. (The government says it does not have data on this.)
“This is a win for all those farmers who laid down their lives to save hundreds of thousands of poor farmers of this country from corporate greed,” Mr. Singh said. “They must be smiling from wherever they are.”
Karan Deep Singh and Sameer Yasir contributed reporting.