Hundreds of thousands of farmers are sitting on dharna in this bone-chilling winter on Delhi borders for the last one month but the government is hardly bothered about their sufferings and grievances. These farmers are protesting against three farm laws passed by Parliament of India recently during the Monsoon session. These laws are: Farmers' Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020, (2) Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020, and (3) Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020.
The farmers believe that these farm laws will affect their interests adversely and the corporates can use these laws to exploit them because of the weak bargaining power of the peasantry and lack of sufficient legal protections. They believe that the government has a soft corner for corporates and these farm laws would provide opportunities to the corporates to rob their livelihoods. The central government is proposing some amendments to the laws— particularly to the most controversial Farmers' Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act which could well have been inserted during the course of informed debate in both Houses of Parliament and after receiving genuine stakeholder response and suggestions. Such kind of law would have been received more appreciation and acceptability. What was the need to pass the laws with rocket speed? Not only did the government fail to reach out to the dissenters then, the same dismissive approach was adopted when the protests began initially in Punjab and then at Delhi's entry points.
The Futile Dialogue
There have also been a few rounds of talks between the farmer organizations and the government ministers but no solution has yet been found. The agitation is likely to be intensified in the coming days because the farmers are demanding a total repeal of these laws and the government is not ready to withdraw these laws as of now. However, the government has assured the farmers to amend the laws but they are not satisfied with this proposal and are determined to get a complete repeal of the laws which seems to be difficult, if not impossible. The government is sparing no opportunity to use its cadre to discredit this agitation and to divide the farmers on regional lines.
The farm unions have expressed a willingness to strengthen the dialogue, provided the discussions relate to providing a "legal guarantee" for minimum support prices (MSP) of crops beyond simply the government's "written assurance" which does not look effective to them. They are not satisfied with government's written assurance proposal. They need legal force behind the MSP as the written assurance of MSP seems less effective to them. The farmers need more legal protection, not only a written assurance so that they could knock the doors of the courts of law for getting justice in case of violation of their rights. The farmers are quite mature and know very well about written or unwritten political assurances in our parliamentary democracy.
Empathy towards Farmers?
Last week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that his government was ready to engage with the protesters — including those "with political agenda" and "ideologically against the government" — but this could only be based on "facts and logic". In short, the Prime Minister was silent regarding repealing or even, as suggested by the Supreme Court, withholding the implementation of the three farm laws. The farmers are not satisfied with this statement made by the Prime Minister. They had expected more from him. They believe that the Prime Minister is hiding the truth. It seems the Prime Minister has lost a good opportunity to clear the facts and farmers' doubts. He should have been more generous towards their issues, demands, and doubts because they play a great role in the nation-building process. He should not politicize the issue simply by blaming the opposition parties for the agitation. This is a mass movement without any political affiliation. He should go to the core issue and find out the reasons of the protest. He should also clear the doubts of the farmers about the apprehension of misuse of these laws. This is what the farmers expect from their Pradhan Sewak who considers himself a great prophet of aam aadmi.
Unfortunately, the Modi government seems to be less empathetic for the farmer's problems and issues. It is taking them lightly and calling it a state-specific protest which is not true. Throughout the country, the farmers are unhappy with the central government's farm laws and policies. Sadly, some of the ministers of Modi government are using all tactics to discredit the farmers' protests. They are blaming the opposition parties for this protest as majority of protesting farmers have come from Punjab, a Congress-ruled state. The Modi government has also deployed its political cadre to justify the laws. Many TV channels are behaving like spokespersons of the government and supporting the government's stand on the farm laws loudly. This is not a good trend for a free and fair media. On a few occasions, Prime Minister Modi has also spoken in favour of the laws and asked the farmers to accept them.
It is very sad to observe how the Haryana Police tried their best to stop the entry of the innocent farmers into Delhi. Were the farmers not constitutionally entitled to reach Delhi, their national capital and express their grievances against the laws that they believed are harmful to their interests? The Constitution gives them freedom of movement and of speech and expression to all its citizens including farmers. Why did the Haryana Police stop them? Not only this, these farmers were variously called anti-national, ultra-Left, tukde tukde gang, anti-nationals, and Khalistan sympathisers-led. This is very bad. This is how the government treats our Annadata? Do not they deserve a better and dignified treatment?
The Prime Minister should show more magnanimity and ask his ministers to engage with the farmers sincerely and with open-mind. The government should not make it a prestige issue. Farmers belong to the country and the country belongs to them. Their contribution cannot be taken lightly. Their sons and daughters of farmers are serving the nation in different capacities including the armed forces and there is no reason to discredit them. Those who are calling the protesting farmers anti-nationals are insulting the country. Nobody can instigate them. They are fully mature people who are quite cautious to know about their rights and duties. The government should not run propaganda against these innocent farmers. It should listen to them carefully and address their grievances generously. Let these farmers go home peacefully and engage in their routine work. The government should not compel them to bear the attack of bone-chilling cold and covid pandemic.
Needless to say, the Modi government had acted in haste when it passed these laws in Parliament. There was no consultation with the essential stakeholders. There was need to act in haste during this difficult corona time when people are badly struggling and suffering. Many people have lost their lives and livelihood. The government should have been more cautious regarding the protests of farm unions and opposition parties on this important issue. Why were these laws brought via ordinance route? It should have waited for the normal period and pass these laws after full discussion and deliberation in Parliament. There was no emergency to enact these laws by using extraordinary legislative tools of the ordinance and thereafter passing the laws in Parliament on Sunday. Why did the government not refer these laws to the Select Committee for full discussion with the necessary stakeholders? This was a very important issue that could have been settled in consultation with all stakeholders including the state governments as these kinds of issues touch the fundamental core of our federal system also.
They certainly deserve a better treatment. Even in his outreach address, Prime Minister Modi blamed the parties that had "ruled Kerala and West Bengal" for "misguiding the farmers of Punjab". Such talking down is least helpful in a situation that calls for dialogue and more dialogue. Blaming the opposition would not serve any purpose. The Prime Minister is expected to heal the wounds. He should not rub salt on farmers' wounds. He should rise above politics and think seriously about the farmers. He belongs to the entire country including those who do not like his political ideology. He should not blame the opposition parties for the protest but should face the reality and suggest some solution to the problems of farmers. He is a statesman, not just a spokesperson of a political party who always targets his political rivals in press conferences or t v debates.
All Eyes on the Supreme Court
Now the matter has also reached the Supreme Court. Some farmer unions have challenged the constitutional validity of these laws in the Supreme Court of India. In addition to this, a law student has also filed a Public Interest Litigation or the Social Action Litigation (as eminent jurist Professor Upendra Baxi rightly calls it) in the Supreme Court and sought the removal of protesting farmers from the borders of Delhi to a designated place citing inconvenience to the public, besides the threat of coronavirus infection. The Supreme Court has issued the notice to the central government and the farm unions and recognized the constitutional right of the farmers to protest so long as their protest is peaceful. This is indeed an admirable decision. This is what the Court observed regarding this on 17th December in the case of Rakesh Vaishnav v.Union of India & Others, Writ Petition (Civil) No. 1118/2020:
"We clarify that this Court will not interfere with the protest in question. Indeed, the right to protest is part of a fundamental right and can as a matter of fact, be exercised subject to public order. 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 life and properties of other citizens and is in accordance with law. We are of the view at this stage that the farmers' protest should be allowed to continue without impediment and without any breach of peace either by the protesters or the police."
The Court has also proposed to set up a committee comprising some representatives of farmers unions across India, the central government, and other stakeholders to resolve the crisis. It has also asked the Attorney-General K K Venugopal to convince the government to put the implementation of these laws on hold till the Court decides the case. The Attorney-General has assured the Court that he will talk to the government regarding this suggestion and will get back to it on the next date of hearing of the case. The Court can do more to address the farmers' grievances. It has all powers to stay the operation of these farm laws till it decides the case. It should not depend only on the government. If the government does not get ready to put the laws on hold, the Court should stay the operation of these three farm laws and hear this on top priority. The Court has always stood with people to protect their human rights and dignity. And we believe that the Court would not disappoint the farmers this time also.
Despite the presumption of constitutionality of the farm laws, the Supreme Court can stay the operation of these laws. That would provide a great relief to millions of farmers in the country. It will also give more time to the government also to think about the amendments in the laws or find out some alternative solutions. It has all reasons and powers to do so. The sky will not fall if these laws are stayed till the final disposal of the case. The central government is putting the lives of thousands of farmers at risk who are sitting on dharna in this chilling winter on Delhi borders when corona is badly roaring in the country. Sadly, 29 people have lost their lives during this protest. This is a very sensitive issue. As the Court itself has indicated that it will take time to decide the case, there should be no objection if the farm laws are stayed. It would indeed be a great relief to the farmers and will inspire them to finish their agitation. The main problem today is a breakdown of trust — between the government and the farmers. The Court has a great opportunity to win this trust of the people and the Court has all powers to heal the sufferings of the farmers. India is a land of farmers that rightly celebrates "Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan." The Court should not disappoint the Annadata!
Views are personal.
(Prof. (Dr) Yogesh Pratap Singh is the Acting VC of NLU Odisha & Lokendra Malik is an Advocate at the Supreme Court of India)