Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 214, 14 January 2021

India: Supreme Court stays farm bills amid continuing protests
Alok K Gupta

In the news
On 12 January, the Supreme Court in India stayed the implementation of the farm laws as impasse continued between the protesting farmers and the government. The three-judge bench of the Supreme Court responded to the petitions challenging the constitutional validity of all the three farm laws. The court also ordered a four-member expert committee to examine the farm laws and submit a report within two months. The bench urged the farmers' unions to go before the committee and resolve the dispute. It also asked the Attorney-General to confirm by filing an affidavit before the court along with Investigation Bureau's records, in response to the application alleging help and support being extended by banned organisations to the protesters. 

Issues at large
While reflecting on the conundrum, the Chief Justice of India, Justice SA Bobde, highlighted the following four aspects: the farm laws cannot be kept in abeyance for nothing; there must be some progress towards resolving the impending issues over the farm laws; women, children and old were exposed to cold and COVID-19, and many have lost lives due to illness and suicide; and, the court does not want to stifle a peaceful protest, rather want to save lives and want protestors to return to their livelihood. These observations are of great significance, given the claims of farmers' unions and government. 

First, as reported, farmers' unions said that they would not go to any apex court-appointed panel to resolve disputes. They are firm on the repeal of farm laws, sans any amendment to it.   

Second, all the committee members have been pro-farm laws in their opinion expressed in media and elsewhere. Hence, their neutrality has been challenged at the inception itself. 

Third, the government has been adamant throughout that they may accommodate amendment to protect the interests of farmers being jeopardized, if any, without repealing the laws.

Fourth, the apex court also seems to be quite pressurising when the bench reiterated that they are forming a committee to have a clear picture. That they do not want to hear arguments that the farmers will not go to the committee. 

Fifth, the laws have been stayed by the Court to calm protestors and convince them to discuss the legislation with the government. On the one hand, the stay has angered the government, and on the other farmers are unsatisfied as they are demanding repeal, hence critical of the committee formed without consulting them.  

Sixth, the constitutional validity of all three laws has been challenged in the Court, which it is yet to hear. Hence, how the Court would handle those petitions is ambiguous. The court's endeavour to locate a mid-way through Committee smacks of politics more than the justice.  

Last, a stay means a delay in the final decision. Delay would lead to rotting of crops and produce. Farmers once again would be at receiving end. 

In perspective
The stay incapacitates the Centre with any executive action to implement the same. The farmers' protest that began on 26 November 2020 on different national capital borders witnessed several rounds of fruitless negotiations between the farmers' unions and government. A continued stalemate prompted the Supreme Court to intervene to bring farmers to the negotiating table. 

However, negotiations have been happening, but the will to resolve has been missing on both sides. Farmers and government are stuck on two extremes; hence reaching a middle ground will be too challenging. 

The adequacy of the 'decision' remains questionable. It may have given a reprieve to the government, but the fate of laws still hangs. Farmers are also divided within, which government is aiming to capitalize upon. 

How far the committee, thus constituted, would create a congenial atmosphere and improve the trust and confidence of the farmers, is difficult to predict.

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