Farm laws: SC is adjudicator, can't be a mediator

SC rarely stays implementation of laws when it hears arguments on their Constitutional validity. The unusual stay offered temporary relief. But farmers are looking for justice and a lasting solution

Representative Image (Photo by Vipin Kumar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
Representative Image (Photo by Vipin Kumar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

Lokendra Malik

India is Peasant India,” wrote Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, our first Prime Minister. Sadly, India has become “Corporate India” where nobody thinks about peasants, farmers, and villagers. The three farm laws passed by Parliament during the pandemic last year reflect this reality.

Thousands of farmers are sitting on dharna on the borders of Delhi for more than ten months but the Union Government is hardly bothered about their grievances. The Prime Minister visited the construction site of the Central Vista at night the day he returned from the United States. But he has made no attempt to meet the farmers. Hundreds of farmers have lost their lives during this agitation but nobody remembers them.

The farmers have also knocked on the doors of the Supreme Court for justice. In an unprecedented move, a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court headed by Chief Justice S. A. Bobde had in January this year stayed the implementation of the three farm laws. But now even the Supreme Court seems to have forgotten about them.

The Supreme Court rarely stays implementation of the laws when it hears arguments on their Constitutional validity. The stay therefore was unusual but offered merely temporary relief. But farmers are looking for justice and a lasting solution. The Supreme Court needs to adjudicate on the constitutional validity of the farm laws without further delay.

In addition to staying the laws in January, the Supreme Court had also constituted a four-member committee of agriculture experts to facilitate dialogue with the farmers. The Court had asked the committee to submit its report within two months and the committee accordingly submitted its report on 31 March this year. But six months have passed since then but the Court has not yet made the report public. Farmers had rejected the idea of the committee as these experts had already supported the farm laws on different platforms and farmers clearly did not expect them to change their views.

The constitution of the four-member committee was therefore a futile exercise that would hardly serve any purpose. That leaves the Supreme Court to adjudicate the issue on merits. By constituting the committee, the Court had quite needlessly taken the initiative to find a political or administrative solution to the political and administrative mess. The Union government, which created this mess when it passed the three farm laws without consultation with stakeholders including state governments, opposition parties in Parliament and farmers’ unions.

In its infinite arrogance, the Union Government had even turned down demands to refer the Bills to a select committee of Parliament for scrutiny. The Government did not listen to the opposition and passed the laws in the Monsoon session of Parliament at break-neck speed. It is difficult to understand the government’s motivation and unseemly haste.

Had the government sent the Bills to the select committee, the situation would have been entirely different today and farmers would not have come on the streets. Undoubtedly, the agriculture sector needs some reforms but such reforms must be brought out after effective consultation with all necessary stakeholders including the farm unions. Why is the government imposing reforms on farmers?

The Supreme Court is the guardian of the Constitution and fundamental rights of the people. It has a constitutional duty to protect the life and livelihood of people under Article 21 of the Constitution. The interim order passed by the top court was possibly well-intentioned but it is not sufficient to satisfy the farmers who have lost trust in the central government and its ministers who were talking to them.

The apex court must focus on speedy adjudication of the petitions as the case involves several issues of great constitutional importance including the federal government’s functioning, the law-making process and Centre-State relations. There was hardly any justification on the part of the Union Government to jump into agriculture-related issues and make unilateral laws related to them without taking states into confidence. Agriculture is a state subject and the central government should not manipulate constitutional provisions to enact colourable legislations in the agriculture sector. Let the states deal with this issue. Why is the Centre legislating on issues relating to agriculture?

The Court needs to consider all these issues particularly the constitutional validity of the impugned laws and their impact on our federal governance. For the last several years, the Union Government has increasingly encroached into domains reserved for the States in the Indian Union. This is not healthy for our democracy.

Farmers have been demanding a total repeal of these objectionable laws that can affect their livelihoods adversely, but the government is not ready to repeal the laws. Ultimately, the Court is the last hope for millions of farmers disturbed by these three laws.

It would be a mistake in my view if the Court chooses to rely on the committee’s report. If possible, it should on the other hand recall its order regarding the constitution of the committee and should focus only on the adjudication of the legal and constitutional issues involved in the petitions to ensure timely justice to millions of farmers who are affected by the farm laws. Public trust is the greatest strength of the judiciary and the Court must sustain it.

Several legal experts and political scientists are of the opinion that the Supreme Court should not involve itself in negotiations or arbitration. It should not allow the government to take undue advantage of the judicial process by indulging in committee-led exercises and derail the adjudication process. It appears that the government wants to shift the responsibility to the Court. However, the Court needs to decide the disputes as per the statutory and constitutional provisions, not rely on the administrative and political findings of an expert committee. The Court is an adjudicator; not a mediator.

The Court has a limited role, that of checking the constitutionality of the legislation and decide accordingly. The court cannot ask the government to amend or repeal the laws as that would be beyond its jurisdiction in a constitutional system based on the principles of separation of powers. But the Court has the power to declare the laws unconstitutional, if the laws are found to be in contravention of constitutional provisions and the law-making scheme. The Court must give speedy justice to farmers. Keeping the petitions challenging farm laws pending serves no purpose.

(The writer is a lawyer practising at the Supreme Court of India. Views are personal)

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