Supreme Court gives government a breather: no hearing on farm laws for two months

Neither the ‘stay’ on the implementation of farm laws nor the expert committee formed by the court seem to have satisfied any aggrieved party. But they have given the government some breathing time

Supreme Court gives government a breather: no hearing on farm laws for two months

Sanjukta Basu

The Supreme Court of India, which had refused to stay the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and laws against inter-faith marriages among others, decided this week to stay the ‘implementation’ of the three contentious farm laws.

In doing so the lordships claimed they were guided by their concern for the lives of citizens. Expressing their concern over the plight of the farmers braving the elements at Delhi’s borders, the judges observed they did not want blood on their hands. Eyebrows were raised at this ‘selective concern’ and several legal luminaries pointed out that the CAA and the so-called ‘anti-love jihad’ laws had led to the loss of several lives.

Nobody had of course prayed for a stay of the laws. And while the apex court can stay laws if there are doubts about constitutionality, in this case the court neither heard arguments nor said the laws appeared unconstitutional. Staying laws which are not unconstitutional is unheard of.

The expert committee formed by the Supreme Court to look into the farm laws and ‘talk’ to the farmers has also turned out to be a non-starter. One of the four members, Bhupinder Singh Mann, recused on Thursday, saying that in view of the prevailing sentiment and apprehensions in the mind of the farmers, he would not be able to compromise on interests of Punjab and the farmers.

With questions being raised about the role of the committee, it had already become a non-starter even before Mann withdrew. With none of the members being lawyers, pointed out Dushyant Dave, president of the Supreme Court Bar Association, it in case did not have the competence to look into the three laws.

“What would the committee look into? The commercial impact of the laws?” asked Dave while pointing out that all the four members nominated by the Supreme Court were known backers of the government and supporters of the farm laws. Surely the committee cannot be expected to report to the Supreme Court that the laws are flawed, he quipped.

Dave suggested that the court had wittingly or unwittingly played into the hands of the government, which wanted to be bailed out of its corner without seeming to be giving in to the farmers. By fixing the next date of hearing two months later, the court has ensured that no hearing on the farm laws will take place during this period. While agitating farmers did not approach the court, there were petitions filed to remove the farmers from Delhi’s borders and also to challenge the constitutionality of the laws. But as several lawyers have pointed out, the Supreme Court spent no time hearing arguments on the legality of the laws.

“In fact, the judges seemed pre-determined to stay the laws and form a committee,” pointed out Dave, “which was conveyed on January 11 even before any hearing.”

The four members nominated by the Supreme Court were agricultural economist Ashok Gulati, BKU (Mann) president Bhupinder Singh Mann, Director South Asia of International Food Policy Pramod Kumar Joshi, and Anil Ghanwat of Shethkari Sangathan. Bhupinder Singh Mann, who has now opted out of the committee, is an influential farmer himself and had last month called on the Union Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar, demanding implementation of the three farm laws. “Reforms are needed in order to make agriculture competitive. But safeguards are needed to protect farmers, and anomalies must also be corrected,” he had then said while supporting the need for agri reforms.

Similarly, Ashok Gulati, widely believed to be one of the architects of the farm laws, in a column in The Indian Express in September, 2019 compared the three farm laws with the landmark de-licensing of industry in 1991. He blamed Congress for leading the farmers’ protests and said that the opposition’s demand that MSP be made legal “will spell disaster in the market, and private players will shun buying”.

A quick look at his Twitter timeline (@agulati115) also makes it clear that he is impressed by PM Modi’s “vision” and has been a critic of the UPA government. In September, 2014 he had tweeted, “100 days of #Modi govt, fruits and veggies finally de-listed from #APMC market in Delhi. Kudos! What UPA could not do in 10 years, done yesterday.”

On May 27, 2019 he tweeted, “Kudos to PM Modi for landslide victory. But he needs to hit the ground running as economy facing headwinds. On agriculture, he needs to set up Agri-marketing Reform Council (AMRC) on the lines of GST council to reform Agri-marketing.”

PK Joshi too has been against legalising MSP (Minimum Support Price). In a column co-authored with Arabinda K Padhee in The Financial Express on December 15, 2020 he wrote, “Prices are always determined by the nature of the commodity, demand, supply and global prices and therefore it is impossible to have legally-guaranteed prices.” He overlooked the Maximum Retail Price (MRP) that most consumer goods producers fix and at which they sell.

He further wrote that farmers’ demands are “unworthy of such support”. The farmers’ movement had been ‘hijacked’ by social activists and political elements and was mainly led by large farmers and traders from Punjab, he argued before concluding, “Any rollback of the farm laws will be disastrous for the farm sector and farmers.”

Anil Ghanwat, the head of one of the less important factions of Shetkari Sangathana in Maharashtra, had also supported the farm laws saying, “Centre must not withdraw the agri reform laws, but should instead make amendments in keeping with the demands made by the farmers”, even as he agreed with the farmer’s contention that the laws were made without proper consultation with them.

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