‘Go back to committees’ is the farm laws lesson

In any key legislation, the practice now of not involving the established systems of Parliament has to be reviewed

November 22, 2021 12:02 am | Updated 11:02 am IST

Farmers celebrate after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that he will repeal the controversial farm laws, at the Singhu border farmers protest site near the Delhi-Haryana border, India, November 19, 2021. REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis

Farmers celebrate after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that he will repeal the controversial farm laws, at the Singhu border farmers protest site near the Delhi-Haryana border, India, November 19, 2021. REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis

The Prime Minister’s apology to the nation for not being able to convince a section of the farming community about the real intent of the Government in enacting the farm legislations is unprecedented. But it is not clear why it was an apology to the nation when only a section of the farmers could not be convinced. And then the apology is not for enacting the three farm laws or causing enormous suffering to the farmers. In any case it appears that the farmers have clearly understood the intent; and that is the reason why they did not go back to their farms until the laws are repealed. Now that the Prime Minister has informed the nation that the Government is going to repeal these laws , the farmers are understandably jubilant over their victory . This victory indeed takes India’s politics to a new phase — a phase of robust non-political movements with a certain staying power. We do not know ultimately what transformation it will bring to India’s jaded politics. But one thing becomes clear. The prolonged non-violent agitation by the determined farmers and the final capitulation by a very powerful Government augur well for India’s democracy.

Trajectory and intent

The trajectory of the three farm laws clearly shows the real intent of the Government. These were brought in first as ordinances which was quite perplexing. First, these laws have a far-reaching impact on the farmers and it was very improper and quite unwise to push them through without taking the farmers into confidence.

 

Second, under Article 123 of the Constitution the President can legislate on a matter when there is great urgency in the nature of an emergency and the sitting of Parliament is quite some time away. Farm laws which make radical changes in the farm sector and affect the life of farmers in very significant ways do not have the kind of urgency which necessitates immediate legislation through the ordinances. Obviously, someone not very familiar with the working of Parliament must have advised the Government to take the ordinance route in order to avoid the standing committees’ scrutiny. It is a wrong impression that Bills which are brought to replace the ordinances are not or cannot be referred to the standing committees of Parliament. There is no such restriction. The Speaker/Chairman has the authority to refer any Bill except a money Bill to the standing committees.

It was being adventurous

These farm Bills should have been referred to the standing committee on agriculture for a detailed scrutiny. The committee could have held comprehensive discussions with the farmers. They would have thus got an opportunity to present their views before the committee and Parliament. In fact, their main complaint was that they were not consulted at any stage before the ordinances were issued. Radical changes in the farm sector without having any kind of consultation with the farmers was nothing short of adventurous.

Parliament is a kind of shock absorber. Its systems have been designed to address issues with a cool head and find solutions. The committees take the heat off the issues and deal with them in a mature manner by listening to all stakeholders. Parliament and its systems require men who govern, not to bypass it.

Editorial | Seeds of hope: On farm laws repeal

House wisdom is invaluable

The English monarchs of the 13th century, powerful and arrogant though they were, felt the need to consult the commoners for running the realm because they became wiser after many battles and wars. Parliament emerged from these consultations. Consultation with Parliament and its time honoured system is a sobering and civilising necessity for governments howsoever powerful they may feel. The accumulated wisdom of the Houses is an invaluable treasure. It is very surprising why important Bills which are coming before Parliament are not being referred to the committees. The experience of centuries shows that scrutiny of Bills by the committees make better laws. The case of the farm laws holds an important lesson for this Government or any government. A series of missteps led to avoidable sufferings to the farmers who do not normally leave their farms and trudge along hundreds of miles to agitate. They lost 700 of their brothers after being exposed to the harshness of the summer, winter and monsoon for almost 14 months. Instead of using water cannons and barricades, had Parliament been allowed to intervene, the head of the Government would not have had to apologise to the nation. However, now that the Government has decided to repeal the farm laws, it will be widely welcomed no matter what political calculations have gone into it.

 

These may be tactical moves

What next is an interesting question because the farmers seem to have decided to wait and watch. They will wait till Parliament repeals these laws in the winter session that commences on November 29. A tone of scepticism could be detected in their reactions presumably because the Government has not taken the position that these farm laws are wrong or harmful to the farmers. In fact the Government is of the view that these laws are necessary for reforming the farm sector. The public apology has not changed that position. So the apology and the repeal of laws may be tactical moves by the Government to tide over the emerging political situation in certain regions of the Indo-Gangetic Plain. Repealed laws can be brought back in future may be with certain modifications. There are no legal hurdles in that. The basic approach to corporatisation of the farm sector has not been abandoned.

A proper parliamentary scrutiny of pieces of legislation is the best guarantee that sectoral interest will not jeopardise basic national interest. Protection of farmers is an essential part of national interest. So, in any future legislation on farmers it is absolutely necessary to involve the systems of Parliament fully so that a balanced approach emerges. We must not forget that the farm Bills were not referred to either the standing committee or a joint select committee of both Houses of Parliament as has been the practice earlier.

 

A missed step

In fact, available data shows that Bills are very rarely referred to the committees these days. House rules have vested the discretion in the presiding officers in the matter of referring the Bills to committees. No reasoned decisions of the presiding officers for not referring them are available. Since detailed examination of Bills by committees result in better laws, the presiding officers may, in public interest, refer all Bills to the committees with few exceptions. Although the relevant rule is not happily worded, the intent is clear, namely, that the committee should examine all the important Bills. In the light of the horrendous experience of the Government over the farm laws, the present practice of not referring the Bills to committees should be reviewed. Speaker Om Birla has spoken about strengthening the committee system in the recent presiding officers’ conference. One way of strengthening it is by getting all the important Bills examined by them.

The farmers had to wage a prolonged struggle because the systems of Parliament were bypassed by the Government. A government elected by the people can function only in a democratic way. Other options are not available to it. The farmers who sat at the Delhi border for 14 months, braving heat and cold and death and conducting themselves in the most democratic way, have once again proved that.

P.D.T. Achary is Former Secretary General, Lok Sabha

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