The Supreme Court on Tuesday stayed the implementation of three controversial farm laws , calling its order “extraordinary” and a “victory for fair play”.
The laws are: The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act and The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act.
The stay on their implementation means the Centre cannot, for the time being, proceed with any executive actions to enforce the laws.
The court formed a four-member committee of experts “to listen to the grievances of the farmers on the farm laws and the views of the government and make recommendations”.
At one point in the 11-page order, a three-judge Bench led by Chief Justice of India (CJI) Sharad A. Bobde said the formation of an expert committee “may create a congenial atmosphere and improve the trust and confidence of the farmers”.
The stay, the court said, “may assuage the hurt feelings of the farmers” and make them confident enough to scythe their way to the negotiating table in good faith.
In a concluding paragraph of the order, the court said the farmers’ bodies would “perceive” the “extraordinary” stay as an achievement of their peaceful protest “at least for the present”. It may convince these organisations to “encourage” their members to go home to their livelihoods, and thus, protect their lives and health and that of others too.
The court said several rounds of negotiations between the Centre and farmers had produced no results, even as senior citizens, women and children among the protesters were exposed to serious health hazards posed by the cold and COVID-19. It noted that deaths, not due to violence, but either of illness or by way of suicide, had occurred already. The court lauded the peaceful nature of the protests and stated that it did not want to stifle it.
However, it noted Attorney General K.K. Venugopal’s “support” of a “specific averment” by the Indian Kisan Union that an organisation, Sikhs for Justice, banned for anti-India secessionist movement, is financing the agitation.
Reports of ‘Khalistanis’
In his turn, Mr. Venugopal orally remarked in the hearing that there were reports that “Khalistanis” had infiltrated the protests.
The hearing on Tuesday took place in the absence of four senior lawyers, including senior advocate Dushyant Dave and advocate Prashant Bhushan, who had said they represent a bulk of the protesting farmers’ organisations.
The four had on Monday sought time to consult their clients and get back the next day with their views on the court’s proposal to form an expert committee. Late Monday night, certain farmers’ bodies issued a statement declining to go before any such committee.
Senior advocate Harish Salve, who appeared for a party supporting the farm laws, said the four lawyers did not log into the virtual hearing on Tuesday.
Chief Justice Bobde was, however, unperturbed by either the lawyers’ absence or statement by farmers on Monday night.
“There are as many opinions here as there are farmers. Let the organisations talk to the committee. You can either resolve the problem or you can agitate indefinitely without any purpose,” he said.
The court order made it clear that farmers’ bodies “shall” participate in the discussions of the committee.
“The representatives of all the farmers’ bodies, whether they are holding a protest or not and whether they support or oppose the laws shall participate in the deliberations of the committee and put forth their view points,” it directed.
The committee consists of Bhupinder Singh Mann, National President, Bhartiya Kisan Union and All India Kisan Coordination Committee; Dr. Parmod Kumar Joshi, agricultural economist, 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.
The order explained that both the government and farmers should take the court’s effort to form a committee in the “right spirit” and consider it an attempt to reach a “fair, equitable and just solution to problems”.
“There is no power on earth which can prevent us from forming the independent committee. We want to solve the problem. We want to understand the ground situation. This is not politics. You have to cooperate,” Chief Justice Bobde told the farmers’ side during the hearing.
He said the implementation of the laws have been stayed to facilitate negotiations with the committee.
“This is not an empty suspension of the laws... All people who want to genuinely resolve the problem should go to the committee... We are willing to suspend the law, but not indefinitely and without any activity on the ground. We don't want inactivity. We want to hear you tell the committee which part of the law needs to be changed, etc. You can go one by one and tell the committee what your problems are,” he stated.
The committee has to start work in 10 days and submit a report to the court in two months. The government would take care of their expenses.
The court directed that the Minimum Support Price (MSP) system in existence before the enactment of the farm laws should be maintained until further orders. In addition, the farmers’ landholdings should be protected.
“That is, no farmer shall be dispossessed or deprived of his title as a result of any action taken under the farm laws,” it ordered.
The three farm laws have been projected by the government as major reforms in the agriculture sector to remove middlemen and allow farmers to sell anywhere in the country. The government projected the laws as an antidote to lowering demands caused by the pandemic.
However, protesting farmers consider the laws as a key to an exploitative regime that would ultimately lead to the loss of their lands.
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta said farmers have fallen prey to the “basic misapprehension” that the laws would lead to loss of agricultural land. “The law is only for voluntary contract farming of crops. Agricultural land will remain immune,” he submitted.
Advocate Manohar Lal Sharma, for some farmers, retorted, “But all farmers have is their land to pay in case of any damages”.
Senior advocate P. Wilson, for a section of farmers from Tamil Nadu, welcomed the stay.
But the court recorded the submissions made by several sections of farmers who, on the other hand, supported the laws. Some even said they were aggrieved by the stay.
Senior advocate V. Chitambaresh, for the Bhartiya Kisan Sangh, said they were happy with the farm laws.
Advocate Sridhar Potaraju, for the Consortium of Indian Farmers Association, which represents 15 farmers’ unions across 15 States, said they would be “badly affected” by the stay as their produce would rot.
Advocate A.P. Singh, for the Bhartiya Kisan Union [BHANU], agreed to “dissuade” senior citizens, women and children from leaving the protest sites.
Advocate Ajay Choudhary, for Kisan Maha Panchayat, submitted that the farmers protesting at the Rajasthan border were willing to appear before the expert committee.
The court scheduled the next hearing after eight weeks.