The Supreme Court’s intervention in the ongoing agitation against the Farm Acts, 2020 smacks of judicial exaggeration, but to do justice to their lordships, cutting the Gordian knot has called for proactive, albeit unorthodox, action. The Centre’s inability to break the deadlock and the protestors’ refusal to negotiate threatened to prolong civil unrest.
From day one, protesters resisted an “article by article” discussion to fill gaps in the new laws. That is exactly what the appointment of an expert panel by the supreme court to review the laws will do. Farmer organizations are now faced with a Hobson choice: they can either bring their concerns to the panel or lose moral ground.
Restless farmers have two problems with the SC decision: first, they oppose the tribunal’s involvement in what they see as a purely “political” issue. Second, they reject the court-appointed supreme committee, on the grounds that all members are known to be supporters of Farm Acts, 2020.
Fear and mistrust
In terms of judicial review, the only point of law in dispute is whether trade in agricultural products is the exclusive prerogative of the state or whether it falls within the power of the Center to regulate interstate commerce. But the constitutional validity of the new laws does not concern the demonstrators. Their objections are based on fears that agricultural reforms may in the long run remove a safety net on which part of the farmers in Punjab and Haryana have become dependent. The fear is compounded by a constant distrust of the State and the Center.
As for their rejection of the two “experts” on the panel, to be honest, it is very difficult to find a reputable economist opposed to agricultural reforms. Several, such as Swaminathan S Anklesaria Aiyar, Arvind Panagariya and Ashok Gulati (who is part of the panel), are very present. Even Kaushik Basu, a former UPA government adviser, who condemned the new laws as business-friendly, simultaneously argued that liberalization of agricultural markets was necessary. Former RBI Governor Raghuram Rajan agreed, with the caveat that “useful institutions that help the farmer” – that is, the MSP (minimum support price) system – should continue. The Center has already promised that it will.
Agricultural economists are also unlikely to support farmers’ demand for a law imposing a minimum support price (MSP) for all agricultural products. First of all, given the variety of crops grown in India, setting different MSPs based on quality standards for all types of products would be a mind blowing exercise. Second, applying PSM to hapless traders across the country is self-destructive in terms of increasing farm incomes, as farmers may be unable to find buyers.
No protester on the panel
The other two members of the panel represent farmers’ organizations that are not opposed to the spirit of agricultural reforms, although they want amendments, as the laws in their current form are admittedly imperfect. The Supreme Court could well have looked for panel members among the protesters, but the protesters made it clear that they did not want to negotiate or discuss amendments. “We do not want to have discussions by clauses. We just want the new agricultural laws to be repealed, ”said Rajesh Tikait, spokesperson for Union Bharatiya Kisan (BKU). This defeats the purpose of the panel.
Even if the Center agreed to repeal the laws completely, it would simply introduce new legislation with the same intention: to liberalize agricultural markets. As well as being a waste of effort, it would be counterproductive, as turning back the clock could trigger a million mutinies. Instead of challenging controversial laws (such as the recent religious conversion or “jihad love” laws) in the Supreme Court, blocking highways would become the preferred mode of protest. This can only further weaken the institutions.
The fact that the protesters represent only a part of the farmers is obvious to the public. What one farmer sees as financial ruin another sees financial freedom. Yogendra Yadav, head of Kisan Andolan, claimed that no peasant organization supported the new agricultural laws. This is clearly wrong, as many have done. Even the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh (BKS), an RSS front-end, turned around and came out in favor, after the necessary amendments were promised.
Farmers’ organizations may choose to oppose the court-appointed panel, or take the opportunity to achieve desirable goals, such as institutionalized guarantees against land alienation and the emergence of monopolies. A refusal to engage can only reverse the trend of public opinion against them.
The writer is a seasoned journalist with 35 years of experience working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now a freelance writer and author.