The central government failed to build a nationwide consensus before enacting a national law with far-reaching ramifications, and thus failed to lead, and Parliament failed to enact a law consistent with the Constitutional norms of long standing.
For over 20 days, more the 300,000 farmers have been protesting on the outskirts of Delhi against the three legislations, collectively called the Farms Acts, that are being seen as an assault on the livelihood of the farmers. The government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has repeatedly claimed that the farmers are being “misled” and “instigated”, implying that the laws are for the benefit of those who are protesting against it, and yet the farmers do not see the laws in such impressive light.
Accusing the Congress of double-dealing, Union Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said that the Congress had the repeal of APMC Act on its 2019 manifesto, and now when the BJP had done it, they were crying foul. The Minister also said that “contract farming”, one of the measures sought to be introduced by the Acts in question, was also started in many Congress-run states during the tenure of former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and now, when the BJP government at the Center has tried to do the same things through the Acts of Parliament, Congress and other opposition parties have taken to oppose the laws and are misleading the farmers to continue protesting.
Central Government’s Undemocratic Stand
If we were to get into the issue of political parties taking contradictory positions, in and out of power, just as much could be said about BJP’s vacillations as of Congress’, but that’s way beside the point. While the repeal of the APMC Act might be desirable and there might have been “contract farming” practiced in certain states in the past, neither could be legitimately done by forcing them upon the farmers across the length and breadth of the country without taking into account and addressing the specific concerns of the farmers of different regions and states, which is what the Farm Acts seek to do, unlike anytime before.
Hardly anything about farming is uniform across the nation, which is the reason why agriculture is on the State List and not on the Union List or the Concurrent List of the Constitution (Seventh Schedule), a distinction the ruling dispensation conveniently ignored while rushing the bills through both the houses without even allowing a proper vote on the bills in the Rajya Sabha, where the bills faced stiff resistance, in a brazen violation of the democratic and deliberative spirit of the Constitution. Bills are supposed to be subjected to intense debates in the Houses before they are passed into laws so that all aspects of their impact on all sections of the people could be discussed and suitable changes could be made in the light of the discussions, if the need be. The farmers’ protest is the direct result of short-circuiting the legislative process wisely contemplated and duly incorporated in the Constitution, making the Farm Laws both democratically and constitutionally questionable.
In continuing defiance of the democratic spirit, the central government has chosen to extend a hard refusal to the farmers’ demand for the repeal of the laws, making the talks between the government and the farmers pointless, with neither side budging. While Agriculture minister Narendra Singh Tomar insisted that “the government” had “no ego” and it “will always be open to dialogue”, the statement itself, together with the stand taken by the government, betrays otherwise, for the question of “ego” does not arise unless the central government sees itself as an absolute and unaccountable center of power. Ironically, Tomar’s assertion of the absence of “ego” is, in fact, a sure affirmation of its presence.
Entry 14 of the State List under the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution covers “agriculture, including agricultural education and research, protection against pests and prevention of plant diseases”; Entry 18 places the usage of “land”, including the “rights in or over land” and “transfer and alienation of agricultural land” under the legislative domain of the state; and Entry 46 makes “taxes on agricultural income” the exclusive preserve of the state with Entry 28 reserving “markets and fairs” for the state as well.
Both the Union and the states can legislate on the matters listed in the Concurrent List, and in case of an irreconcilable conflict between a central law and a state law, the central legislation prevails. Entry 33 of the Concurrent List allows both the state and the center to legislate on “trade and commerce in, and the production, supply and distribution of”, among other things, “foodstuffs, including edible oilseeds and oils”, and Entry 34 puts “price control” in the shared domain.
For a long time states have accused the center for misusing the two entries in the Concurrent List to make inroads into the state domain in respect of agriculture and agricultural products. While it may be debatable whether or not the central legislature is constitutionally competent to enact such sweeping legislations as the set of three Farm Laws in issue, and can only be answered definitively by the Supreme Court, it is easier to answer if the laws violate the constitutional spirit of cooperative federalism. And the answer is, yes, they do.
Breach Of Cooperative Federalism
Democratic governance is about being in touch with the needs of the people, and being accountable to them, farmers included. The diffused accountability of the central government towards the farmers means that the farmers of one state cannot hold the center accountable and punish it for acting against their interests unless most of the farmers across the nation feel equally wronged, and even then the central government may get away with it if other sections of the people side with the center in adequate numbers. The state governments, on the other hand, are not only far better acquainted with the needs of the local farmers of the state, but can also be effectively held accountable for going against the interests of the farmers.
At the same time, the central legislature has also been empowered in respect of agriculture so as to ensure that in pursuing the interests of the local farmers, the state governments do not compromise the interests of the farmers of other states, or the public at large, and if and when they do it, the central government could effectively intervene. That’s how the Constitution provides a framework to manage competing interests equitably.
However, in the situations requiring nationwide legal framework, the central government can arrive at an understanding with the states after broad-based consultation and debate both within the Houses of Parliament and outside, and enact a central law that takes care of all the farmers; or, alternatively, have the states enact laws that best suit the needs of their farmers within the legal framework provided by the center for the purpose.
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The Farm Laws that have so enraged the farmers are currently being forced upon the farmers without adequate consultation with them, and without obtaining their prior consent, which is how a democracy has to function anyway, and which is also in line with the constitutional spirit of cooperative federalism. If the farmers have been “misled”, as the Prime Minister and other ministers would have us believe, it is because the central government failed to build a nationwide consensus before enacting a national law with far-reaching ramifications impacting the livelihood of a large number of farmers across the nation. In short, the central leadership failed to lead, and Parliament failed to enact a satisfactory law consistent with the Constitutional norms of long standing.