Bulldozing farm laws in the name of reforms
Arrogance, repression, and forceful obedience have no place in a democracy.
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In September, amid the coronavirus pandemic, the Indian government passed three laws deregulating the agriculture sector in India. They did so without consulting any farmers’ organisations anywhere in the country. One wonders about the urgency to push them at such an uncertain time, when the economy is in recession and the pandemic not yet over. Besides the fact that the Bills were passed through deception and trickery; without any parliamentary committees having been constituted, actual voting and public debate notwithstanding, the laws in themselves are more harmful than beneficial to the farmers who they claim to have been made for. But let’s leave that for another time.
On January 12, the Supreme Court stayed the implementation of the Centre’s farm laws till further notice, and constituted an expert committee which was to take inputs from all the relevant stakeholders regarding the protests and the farmers’ concerns. This committee was met with opposition from the farmer unions, as all those on the committee had publicly supported the farm laws, and one of the four members of this committee eventually backed out. We are yet to know what the findings of this committee have been, so far.
The government claims it held extensive discussions on farm laws but there is no evidence on the ground. (Photo: ANI)
What one wonders is that shouldn’t an expert committee have been constituted in Parliament BEFORE passing the farm laws in the manner that they were? It’s amazing how this seems to have become the government’s modus operandi where they first pass Bills and laws, and then proceed to give clarifications and go on to try and mediate with the concerned populace.
To give more context to this, let us talk of the Niti Ayog. As per the National Institute for Transforming India (Niti), the transformation of India in the conception of PM Narendra Modi, who is its Chairman, is meant to be achieved through deregulation in all fields of economic activity. Let us note that Modi created the think tank through a cabinet decision, and not via the constitutional route. In December 2020, Amitabh Kant, operational chief of the Niti Ayog was seen in a virtual event, saying that ‘tough reforms’ were very difficult in the Indian context due to “too much democracy” in the country. He also said that the present government had shown the “political will” to drive hard reforms, giving examples of mining, agriculture and labour. He went on to iterate that India could not compete with China without “hard reforms”. The political meaning of this is that the procedures, regulations, culture of debate and discussion, and the right to protest in a democracy will not support the “tough reforms” that are needed. Presumably then, the democratic process cannot yield what bulldozing can. The biggest example being these three contentious agri laws that were rammed through Parliament in undemocratically. I will attempt to explain how:
1) Agriculture and trade are state subjects, but the states were not consulted before passing the Bills.
The leaders of several states, whose power to govern the functioning of agriculture will be severely eroded by the new laws, are considering their options to take on the Centre. Even the BJP’s ally, the Shiromani Akali Dal, opposed the Bills. SAD leader and Union Cabinet Minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal resigned from the government over the passing of these Bills.
Other parties have said that the laws are an attack on federalism. The Trinamool Congress and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam have accused the Centre of trying to usurp powers of the state governments by claiming that these are reforms.
Instead of working with the state governments to change the way that agricultural markets work, the Centre simply promulgated these three Bills as ordinances in May, without any consultation. These changes are tremendously significant: analysts have compared them to the 1991 structural alterations that deregulated the Indian economy. But because they were carried out by sidestepping the states, they are also being referred to as “bypass reforms”.
Agriculture is in the state list under the Constitution; however, Entry 33 of the Concurrent List provides Centre and the states powers to control production, supply and distribution of products of any industry, including agriculture. The Centre seems to have used this loophole to bypass the states.
2) The people for whom the Bills have been made - the farmers’ and their unions were not consulted.
Now, if the central government and their supporters are to be believed, the Centre did consult both the farmers and the states. It has repeatedly stated that it held multiple consultations with the ‘stakeholders’ before passing the laws.
In a Facebook Live event, Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar said, "These laws have been discussed in the country for a very long time. Many committees were set up which then conducted many consultations across the country.”
Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said, "Extensive consultations, trainings and outreach programmes (were) conducted on the agriculture laws with stakeholders.” He said that "1.37 lakh webinars and trainings" had been held since June and 92.42 lakh farmers had participated.
A note from government sources tried to debunk the "perception the central government has not done extensive outreach and consultations with farmers and their representatives". As per the note, the ministry also consulted a prominent farmers' union and even made a change in the ordinance after their feedback. The note also says, "Feedback was also obtained from few progressive farmers and knowledgeable Mandi officials. There were multiple meetings with FPOs (Farmer Producer Organisations) through video conferences.”
Farmers have refused to end the protests till farm laws are repealed. (Photo: PTI)
The central government even claimed in the Supreme Court that it had carried out extensive consultations with the ‘stakeholders’ in regard to passing the agriculture laws. The Centre submitted an affidavit in the Supreme Court stating that the “affidavit is necessary for the purpose of dispelling the erroneous notion that the protesters have peddled that the central government and Parliament never had any consultative process or examination of issues by any Committee before passing of the laws in question.”
The Modi government added: “An impression was created that the Bills were passed hurriedly without undergoing any process. This response is to show the serious, sincere and constructive efforts made by the central government to engage with the limited number of protesting farmers who are opposing the Act.”
However, RTI responses have shown that there are no records of any such consultations. Then why is the Centre lying?
In RTI requests filed by activist Anjali Bhardwaj with the Department of Agriculture, Cooperation and Farmers Welfare in December, she had requested for information on the consultations held before the Centre passed the three farm ordinances in June. The request was transferred to various departments. The Central Public Information Officer (CPIO) of ‘Marketing L Cell’ responded on December 22, 2020, stating that he “does not hold any record in this matter”. CPIOs of ‘Marketing II’ and ‘Farmers Welfare’ departments forwarded the queries to other CPIOs. On January 6 this year, the CPIO of the ‘Marketing-I’ department responded: “I am the CPIO in respect of Marketing I Section dealing with administrative work of the Agricultural Marketing Division, Department of Agriculture, Cooperation and Farmers Welfare. The information sought by you does not pertain to Marketing-I Section. Further, your RTI application has already been marked online to CPIO, Marketing II Section who deals with scheme-related work in respect of Agriculture Marketing Division. In view of this, in so far Marketing-I Section is concerned, the information is treated as Nil.”
Bhardwaj had sought copies of the minutes of the meetings held to discuss the proposed laws before the promulgation of the ordinances, and lists of persons, experts and farmers groups with whom these consultations were held. She also requested for details of the states and communication with the states with whom consultations were held, and highlighted media reports which stated that the Agriculture Ministry had consulted various experts, former officials and agriculture departments of various states while preparing the three farm laws.
In another RTI request, she wanted to know if the Centre had placed the draft legislation in the public domain for 30 days, in accordance with norms set by its own Pre-Legislative Consultation Policy as well as by the Central Information Commission.
None of the departments had any information.
If the government did, in fact, hold these consultations, then why did it not keep any record of it? Does it not strike you as being strange? I urge you to think about it.
Let me reiterate: The Union Agriculture Ministry could not provide any record of pre-legislative consultations on the three farm reform laws.
3) The Rajya Sabha passed the Bills on September 20, 2020, over-riding rules.
The Opposition demanded for physical voting instead of voice voting. As per voting rules of Rajya Sabha, members of the House can challenge the voice voting decision, in which case the votes need to be recorded. However, the Chair of the House passed the Bill with only voice voting, claiming that the Opposition had created chaos.
Opposition MPs shouted slogans against the deputy chairman’s decision to pass the Bills by voice vote. This resulted in eight MPs being suspended. Twelve Opposition parties also moved a no-confidence motion against deputy chairman Harivansh Narayan Singh, which was rejected by Chairman Venkaiah Naidu.
4) Opposition MPs had demanded that the two contentious Bills be examined by a select committee of the House.
During the debate on the two Bills in Lok Sabha, the government ignored the demands of the Opposition for referring them to a Parliamentary Committee. And it did not refer them to a select committee of the Rajya Sabha either. Again, one wonders what was the urgency?
5) The President gave his assent to the Bills a day after the leader of the opposition met him and handed over a representation saying that the Bills had been passed unconstitutionally and should be returned for further consideration, even as the farmers were protesting in their own states.
The President gave his assent on September 24, a day before the state-wide bandh call by farmer organisations in Punjab and Haryana. The Winter Session of Parliament was cancelled, and soon after, Delhi was taken siege of and all its borders, blocked. Indian farmers from the state of Punjab decided to take their protest to New Delhi, some walking and traveling on their tractors and carriages, hundreds of miles to Delhi. Instead of having a safe journey to their own nation’s capital, they were met with numerous police barricades, water cannons, tear gas canisters, and even dug-up and destroyed national highways (by the government) in order to thwart their march to the capital. They could not be stopped.
The farmers protest has become one of the largest protests of all time, with millions being a part of it.
After all this, Attorney General KK Venugopal tried to discredit the protesters in the Supreme Court by saying that Khalistanis have infiltrated the farmers protest, leading to the Supreme Court seeking an affidavit on the same.
The tractor rally on January 26 saw violence that left over 300 police officers injured, with some landing in ICU, and one protester dead. Protesters managed to reach the Red Fort and hoist a religious flag on the monument. This was followed by police barricades, clearing of protest sites, brutality, internet jams, FIRs and arrests of journalists, protesters and farmer leaders. The movement has only grown bigger and stronger with city folk, students, and other concerned citizens joining in, braving the cold, the abuse and step-motherly treatment from the government.
In fact, it seems to have become a global issue now, with international artists and organisations taking cognisance of what is happening in India.
The government needs to rethink its strategy. It needs to understand that public sentiment is building up against its ways, and fascism and authoritarianism have no place in a democracy, run via the Constitution. The state, through its actions, has created a tremendous trust deficit. It would be more sagacious to repeal the Bills, necessitating the farmers to call off the agitation and return to their villages. The Centre can then call on the state governments and farmer unions for consultations to reframe the farm laws keeping in mind the reforms needed in this sector.
Otherwise, there will only be more mayhem in the long run.