While arguing against petitions challenging the three farms laws, the government had told the Supreme Court in January that their enactment was preceded by “two decades of deliberations” and termed demands for their repeal as “neither justifiable nor acceptable”.
In an affidavit filed by the Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture and Farmer Welfare, the government sought to dispel what it called “the erroneous notion… peddled” by protesters that the government and Parliament did not hold consultations before passing the laws.
It also argued that states had been tardy in implementing the reforms in their “true spirit”.
The affidavit underlined “serious, sincere and constructive efforts” made by the government to engage with “the limited number” of farmers protesting the laws. It said the agitation was limited to only one place and that this showed that a majority of the farmers found the legislation “in their interest”.
The government argued that there was a need for changes in state marketing laws as these hindered agricultural trade as well as provision of legal support to farmers to realise remunerative prices.
In its affidavit, the government had described in detail its engagement with states over the last two decades to initiate farm sector reforms.
It said “states either showed reluctance to adopt the reforms in true spirit or made partial or cosmetic reforms”.
It said an Expert Committee set up to review the agricultural marketing system had in a June 2001 report suggested various legislative reforms.
Following this, the Centre said, an inter-ministerial task force report of June 2002 had also recommended “several legislative reforms in the State APMC Acts and the Essential Commodities Act to remove restrictive provisions impeding development of an efficient and competitive marketing system, for promotion of direct marketing, for encouraging contract farming and for rationalisation of market fee/tax structure”.
It was after the acceptance of this report that the Agriculture Ministry formulated the Model APMC Act, 2003, and Rules, 2007, in consultation with states, the Centre said. When it was noticed that their adoption by states and Union territories “was of varied degree and slow”, in 2010, an Empowered Committee of 10 state ministers was formed to “persuade” the states to implement the Act and rules, as well as to suggest further reforms.
This committee submitted its report in 2013, seeking steps for removing barriers in the way of markets. The affidavit said the committee “specifically consulted farmers from various states and regions”, and hence the petitioners’ claim of not being consulted “has no basis in fact whatsoever”.
The affidavit went on to mention a Working Group of Agriculture Production, constituted in May 2010, under the chairmanship of the Punjab Chief Minister and including CMs of West Bengal and Bihar. It said this group recommended “that the market for agricultural produce must be immediately freed of all sorts of restrictions on movement, trading, stocking, finance, exports etc” and that “no monopoly, including that of APMCs or corporate licensees, should be allowed to restrict the market”. The committee also suggested that the Essential Commodities Act be invoked only in times of emergency and in consultation with states.
Next, in 2017, the Centre said, the government formulated “a progressive, more liberal, farmers’ friendly and facilitative Model Act” — State Agriculture Produce and Livestock Marketing (Facilitation & Development) Act — to “provide for geographically restriction-free” trade of agricultural produce; to give “freedom” to farmers to sell; to “enhance transparency” in payments; to promote multiple channels for competitive marketing, agri-processing and agricultural export; and to encourage investments.
The affidavit said that on May 21, 2020, the Department of Agriculture, Cooperation and Farmers’ Welfare held a meeting, attended by 13 states/UTs, for feedback on this new legal framework.
It said that while the Covid-19 lockdown setbacks had further accentuated the need for reforms, only states such as Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Uttarakhand, Madhya Pradesh, Goa, Tripura and Meghalaya had taken some measures to facilitate farmers. And that it was in light of this that it had brought in the three laws via ordinances, which were later replaced by Acts.
About talks with the protesting farmers, the Centre said it had done all it could to address “specific grievances of some farmers”, listing the “constructive dialogue” held on different dates, and the implementation of the Swaminathan Report through hiked MSP. Given that the Acts had received “wide acceptance “, it said, the demand for repeal is “neither justifiable nor acceptable”.
Subsequently when the matter came up for hearing, a bench headed by the then Chief Justice of India hinted that it may stay the operation of the laws till a solution is found through discussion.
This was opposed by Attorney General K K Venugopal saying the suggestion is “drastic”. He argued that “none of the petitions point to any provision of three farm acts stating that it is unconstitutional”.
The AG pointed out that thousands of farmers have already entered into contracts with traders under the new laws and staying them would cost these farmers heavily. “If implementation is stayed then what cannot be done directly will be done indirectly”, remarked Venugopal.
On January 12, the SC put on hold the implementation of the three enactments and announced the setting-up of a committee to speak with the farmers and the government and suggest changes, if any.
The court also put in place a Committee comprising of Bhupinder Singh Mann, National President, Bhartiya Kisan Union and All India Kisan Coordination Committee,
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. A few days later, Mann revised from the Committee saying he is with the protestors.
The committee submitted its report to the top court on March 19.
The SC heard the petitions last on January 20 this year.