The Narendra Modi government, it seems, is turning to the Supreme Court to extricate itself from the political mess arising from the farmers’ protests against its agricultural reform laws. At Friday’s failed talks with the farm unions, the government side is reported to have suggested that the farmer unions can go to the court, which can be requested to hold daily hearings to decide on the constitutional validity of the three laws. On the face of it, nothing wrong — courts are the only place where any law can be challenged. But this lobbing of the ball to the court — with the Union Agriculture Minister, Narendra Singh Tomar, saying that the apex court has the right to examine legislation enacted by Parliament — is fraught. More so with the unions claiming they aren’t interested in the court’s intervention in what is a “policy matter”. In a strange reversal of roles, the government is the one seeking judicial review whereas the purportedly affected party insists on an out-of-court resolution.
What the current standoff clearly reflects is a political failure on the part of the government beginning with the unseemly haste with which the three laws were passed, first via the ordinance route and then in Parliament, with little debate and no proper stakeholder consultation during drafting and then the badmouthing of critics as rogue elements. The laws, of course, are well-intended. Allowing crop purchases outside state-controlled mandis, creating a legal framework for contract farming agreements and removing stockholding and movement restrictions on produce are much-needed reforms for Indian agriculture in the 21st century. The ultimate beneficiaries of these reforms, which address the reality of the country’s transition from a structurally deficit to surplus producer, are the farmers themselves. The government’s readiness to discuss the farm laws “clause-by-clause” with the unions, and even to undertake amendments, could well have been shown at the time of introducing the bills. Equally ironical is the Supreme Court now proposing an “independent” expert panel to break the impasse — over the same bills that the government refused to refer for scrutiny to Parliament’s own select committee. A court-appointed panel sitting on judgment on a law passed by Parliament has its own consequences, intended and unintended.
The situation at Delhi’s borders is taking a mounting toll. The Centre’s strategy to tire out the protesters does not seem to be working. With Republic Day approaching and Parliament convening for the Budget session, the images of protesting farmers, already braving winter nights out in the open, are especially disquieting. They also send out disturbing signals in the midst of the world’s biggest anti-COVID-19 drive. The government must find a practical solution — which can only be political. And it should do this quickly. Hoping for the courts to do it is not policy.