NEW DELHI — India’s highest court on Tuesday halted the implementation of new laws that would reshape farming in the country and that sparked huge protests outside the capital, New Delhi, in a setback to the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The Supreme Court said it was suspending the laws until a committee of experts, which it will appoint, could consult with government officials and protesting farmers to try to find a solution to the dispute. During the first day of the hearing on Monday, the chief justice was scathing in his criticism of how the government had handled the laws, saying he was “extremely disappointed” and that he feared the protests could lead to violence.
“We don’t want anybody’s injury or blood on our hands,” the chief justice, Sharad Arvind Bobde, said during the hearing.
It was unclear if the suspension would satisfy the protesting farmers. They have insisted on a complete repeal of the laws. which they say would diminish what little state protection they have and put them at the mercy of corporations.
On the eve of the judgment, local news reports, citing leaders of the farmers, suggested that they might not participate in committees, seeing them as a government ploy to exhaust the protesters.
But soon after the judgment on Tuesday, A.P. Singh, one of the lawyers representing some of the farm unions involved in the protests, called it a “victory for the farmers.” Union leaders said they would issue a response after holding discussions.
Tens of thousands of farmers have besieged New Delhi for more than six weeks now, setting up well-organized protest camps stretching for tens of miles at all of the capital’s main entrances. They have stood firm despite the winter cold, frequent rain and dozens of deaths in their ranks.
The government of Mr. Modi, who has said that he wants to nearly double India’s economy by 2024, hopes that injecting private investment into the troubled farming sector will expedite growth. The new laws, which Parliament passed in September in a hurried manner that led to protests from opposition parties, would ease some government regulations in order to encourage private investors to deal directly with farmers.
Even with those regulations, such as minimum guaranteed prices for certain crops, the farmers had been struggling with rising debt, which has driven many of them to suicide. They fear that the new laws will remove the scant protection they have enjoyed and that they will struggle to fight corporate giants for fair treatment.