Thursday, September 28, 2023

Bitter Harvest

The apex court’s stay on the implementation of the three laws and the formation of a committee might be the first stage in resolving a complex situation where neither the government nor the farmers want to back off.

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By Shaheen Parween

On January 12, the Supreme Court passed an order staying the implementation of the three contentious farm laws until further orders. The bench of Chief Justice SA Bobde and Justices AS Bopanna and V Ramasubramanian also appointed a four-member committee to listen to the grievances of the farmers related to the laws they are objecting to and also get the views of the government and submit its report in two months.

The committee initially comprised Bhupinder Singh Mann, national president, Bharatiya Kisan Union and All India Kisan Coordination Committee; Dr Parmod Kumar Joshi, agricultural economist and director for South Asia, International Food Policy Research Institute; Ashok Gulati, agricultural economist and former chairman of the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices; and Anil Ghanwat, president, Shetkari Sanghatana. Later, Mann recused himself from the committee, declaring his full support for the farmers.

The order has, however, not been perceived well by a few farmers’ organisations. A press release issued by the CPI(M) Central Committee office termed the apex court’s ruling “an ill-conceived order”. It has further been said that none of the petitioners had asked for the committee. Moreover, the farmers’ representatives, during their talks with the government, had already rejected the offer of a committee. It has further been alleged that “the Court has appointed four persons to the committee who are all known for their support to the three farm laws.”

These views have led to a complex situation. While the top court has asked representatives of all the farmers’ bodies whether they are holding a protest or not and whether they support or oppose the laws to participate in the deliberations of the committee and put forth their views, the farmers’ bodies have stayed firm on their non-involvement in the Court’s affairs.

The three contentious, new farm laws that were before the bench were the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020; the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020; and the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020.

Some petitions have challenged the constitutional validity of the farm laws. These include a petition challenging the validity of the Constitution (Third Amendment) Act, 1954, by which Entry 33 was substituted in List III (Concurrent List) in the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution, enabling the centre to also legislate on a subject which was otherwise part of the State List. Another set of petitions supports the farm laws and says they are constitutionally valid and also beneficial to the farmers.

The third category of petitions isn’t about the farm laws, but about the civic problems arising out of the farmers’ protest. Some citizens from Delhi-NCR have placed this petition, saying that the manner in which the protest is being carried on is seriously inhibiting the supply of essential goods to the city because of restrictions on the free movement of goods’ vehicles. According to the petitioners, this will result in a sharp increase in the prices of goods which would be difficult for people to bear in these pandemic-struck times.

The petitions supporting the laws say that no fundamental right is absolute and it would be necessary for the Court to determine the contours of the right of free speech and expression involved in the farmers’ protest and the extent to which this right can be exercised consistently with the rights of other citizens.

The bench, however, in its earlier hearing had clarified that it will not interfere with the protest of the farmers, because the right to protest is part of the fundamental rights. The bench observed that there can certainly be no impediment in the exercise of such rights as long as it is non-violent and does not result in damage to the lives and properties of other citizens and is in accordance with the law.

The Court, while passing the order, observed that though several rounds of negotiations had taken place between the Government of India and the farmers’ bodies, no solution seemed to be in sight. Further, the situation on the ground is that senior citizens, women and children are at the protest site, exposing themselves to serious health hazards posed by the intense cold and the Covid-19 virus. There have been a few deaths, not through violence, but either out of illness or by way of suicide.

The bench also lauded the farmers for the peaceful agitation. But it was pointed out during the hearing that a few persons who are not farmers have also joined. There was apprehension that these outside elements might want to foment trouble.

The bench observed: “While we may not stifle a peaceful protest, we think that this extraordinary order of stay of implementation of the farm laws will be perceived as an achievement of the purpose of such protest at least for the present and will encourage the farmers’ bodies to convince their members to get back to their livelihood, both in order to protect their own lives and health and in order to protect the lives and properties of others.”

While passing an order for constitution of the committee, the bench said: “The constitution of a committee of experts in the field of agriculture to negotiate between the farmers’ bodies and the government of India may create a congenial atmosphere and improve the trust and confidence of the farmers. We are also of the view that a stay of implementation of all the three farm laws for the present may assuage the hurt feelings of the farmers and encourage them to come to the negotiating table with confidence and good faith.”

Attorney General KK Venugopal submitted before the bench that there were reports that the farmers’ bodies may take out a tractor rally on January 26, disrupting the Republic Day Parade and celebrations. However, this was stoutly denied by Senior Advocate Dushyant Dave, appearing for a few of the farmers’ bodies. Dave said that this was not possible, because at least one member of the family of each of the farmers from Punjab is in the army and that they would not disrupt the Republic Day celebrations. 

Solicitor General Tushar Mehta had filed an application seeking an order of injunction restraining anyone from conducting any protest march either in the form of tractor/trolley/vehicle march or any other mode in the national capital on Republic Day. The bench issued notice on the said application.

Insofar as the apprehension regarding Minimum Support Price being done away with is concerned, Mehta confirmed that there are inherent safeguards in-built in the farm laws for the protection of the land of the farmers and that it will be ensured that no farmer will lose his land.

The bench also reaffirmed that the Minimum Support Price System in existence before the enactment of the farm laws shall be maintained until further orders. In addition, the farmers’ land holdings shall be protected, i.e., no farmer shall be dispossessed or deprived of his title as a result of any action taken under the farm laws.

Former Supreme Court judge Justice Markandey Katju, in a letter addressed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, urged the government to repeal the farm laws by an ordinance and appoint a high-powered farmers’ commission comprising representatives of leading farmers’ organisations, government representatives and agricultural experts. The committee should consider all aspects of the problems of farmers, the principal one being that they are not getting adequate remuneration for their produce, because of which three to four lakh farmers have already committed suicide.

Justice Katju also expressed apprehensions that if violence in Delhi ensues, soon thereafter there will be large scale turmoil in Punjab, Haryana, Uttarakhand, western UP, and this will then spread and escalate in other Indian states too.

The Farmers Producer Companies (FPCs), on the other hand, are fearing a setback in their business since after the stay order of the Court , the FPCs, who had started business outside Agricultural Produce Market Committees (APMCs), will now have to pay cess or seek permission to carry out their business.

The developments so far

  • Eight rounds of talks between government and farmers end in deadlock.
  • Government says it is ready for amendments, but farmers steady on repeal of all the three farm laws.
  • Farmers refuse to believe government assurance that MSP and APMCs would stay.
  • Government refuses to repeal laws.
  • Supreme Court says farmers’ protest not illegal and the Court does not want to interfere in the process as long as it is peaceful.
  • The apex court stays the implementation of three new farm laws.
  • The Court forms a four-member committee, comprising agriculture experts, to talk to farmers and the government.
  • Farmers refuse to negotiate with the committee as requested by the Court
  • CPI(M) Central Committee office calls the apex court’s ruling “an ill-conceived order”.
  • Bhupinder Singh Mann recuses from the four-member committee; says he is supportive of the farmers.
  • Complaints arise about “outsiders” adding fuel to farmers’ ire; fear of disturbances.
  • Proposed Republic Day tractor rally opposed by government counsel.
  • Justice (retd) Markandey Katju writes to prime minister, says that agitation may spread across nation; asks for repeal of the laws via ordinance.
  • Farmers burn copies of the contentious laws during Lohri.
  • The ninth round of talks between the government and farmers unsuccessful.

Read Also: Delhi HC refers petition against 2018 amendment of Prevention of Corruption Act to bench seized of the matter

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