THE Government’s concessions, offered in a bid to placate protesting farmers, effectively water down key parts of its new law and restore certain powers of the states in regulating the agricultural market place.
Section 3 of the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion And Facilitation) Act, 2020, that gives a buyer a right to engage in trade and commerce of a farmer’s produce across the country has been left untouched.
Indeed, this was the object and purpose of the legislation. Section 3 states: “An Act to provide for the creation of an ecosystem where the farmers and traders enjoy the freedom of choice relating to sale and purchase of farmers’ produce…to promote efficient, transparent and barrier-free inter-State and intra-State trade and commerce of farmers’ produce outside the physical premises of markets or deemed markets notified under various State agricultural produce market (APMC) legislations; to provide a facilitative framework for electronic trading.”
While this was aimed at expanding choices, protesting farmers argued that this was a signal that the government would progressively withdraw from being the principal procurer by allowing private players in.
However, except for Section 3, other key provisions of the law are in for substantial change if the Centre’s proposal is accepted. Two changes through amending Sections 4 and 6 are likely to restore powers of the states – the dilution of the state’s role was a point of contention.
Among the Centre’s proposed amendments is the dilution of Section 4 that expanded the scope of a potential buyer to anyone with a PAN card. The Centre’s concession is now to empower states to make rules on registration of buyers. The proposal gives states a foot in the door in determining who is a buyer. In the current mandi system, commission agents have to get a licence to trade in a mandi.
The Centre has also proposed a rollback of the provision that did away with a market fee or cess or levy under any State APMC Act or any other State law under Section 6 of the Act. This proposed amendment will empower state governments to impose taxes and fees in private mandis – after deciding on the quantum — to ensure a level-playing field between the APMC mandis and private markets.
Another significant rollback proposed by the Centre is allowing farmers to approach civil courts instead of the dispute-resolution mechanism in the law.
Section 15 of the Act barred the jurisdiction of the civil court from entertaining any suit or proceedings in respect of any matter which could be dealt through the special mechanism provided in the law.
Chapter 3 of the Act prescribes a Conciliation Board set up by the Sub-Divisional Magistrate for resolving issues arising out of a transaction between the farmer and a trader.
Section 8 says that a decision by this board would be a “binding settlement of the dispute” for the parties. It also provides for an appeal against this before the Appellate Authority (Collector or Additional Collector nominated by the Collector) within 30 days.
The law provides that the orders of Sub-Divisional Authority or Appellate Authority shall have the force of a civil court and then under Section 15, excludes a civil court from entertaining any claims.
However, decisions of the authorities can always be challenged before Constitutional courts for violation of fundamental rights, including against arbitrary decisions by the state.
In its concession to the farmers, the Centre has allowed them to approach civil courts. This would essentially render Sections 8-15 inapplicable. The bureaucratic dispute-resolution mechanism provided under the Act is seen too close to the state while courts are a neutral arbiter.
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