The Supreme Court is likely to hear a batch of pleas challenging the constitutional validity of the three farm acts that have garnered intense criticism. At least eight pleas have challenged the Farmers Produce Trade and Commerce (Agriculture and Promotion) Act, 2020; Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020; and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020.
The opposition to the farm acts recently passed by the Parliament has intensified across several fronts. Even as another round of discussion is underway between a delegation and the Centre, the farmers' protests have entered its 11th day with tents pitched at the borders of the national capital.
During the last hearing on October 12, the top court observed that this issue "was bound to rise somewhere or the other" while issuing notice on two pleas. "Instead of answering these (questions) in various high courts, file a reply in this court," a bench led by Chief Justice S.A. Bobde told the Centre.
Farmers, Politicians and a Serial Litigator challenge farm acts
Farmer groups, politicians and a serial litigator have challenged the constitutional validity of the farm acts in the top court. The Chhattisgarh Kisan Congress, DMK MP Tiruchi Siva and serial litigator ML Sharma were the first ones to file their plea days after President Ram Nath Kovind signed off on the contentious bills.
Bharatiya Kisan Party, Rajya Sabha Members of Parliament (MP) Manoj Jha, Rashtriya Janta Dal (RJD) and Binoy Viswam, Communist Party of India (CPI), Lok Sabha MP T.N. Prathapan, Congress and a farmer from Madhya Pradesh DP Dhakad have also filed pleas.
Acts encourage corporatization of agriculture
The pleas—similar in their concerns—suggest that the new farm acts are violative of fundamental rights and the provisions are "manifestly arbitrary, unreasonable, whimsical and highly arbitrary."
They also submit that the new acts are an assault on the federal structure of the Constitution; will encourage corporatisation of agriculture and is exploitative towards the farmer. They also submit that the acts destroy the market regulatory environment under state market laws and also lacks a proper dispute resolution system leaving the farmers vulnerable among other issues.
In his plea, Dhakad, a farmer from MP, submitted that the farm acts corporatised agriculture and ushered in an unregulated and exploitative regime. "A farmer would not have the knowledge to negotiate the best terms with a private company. This leads to unequal bargaining position in negotiating the farm agreement with corporates would to corporate monopolizing the agriculture sector, it added.
Jha submits primarily intends to sacrifice the interest of the farmers and leave them at the mercy of the sponsors (or corporates) without any proper dispute resolution mechanism. Jha pointed out that the acts provided for "farming agreements" between the farmers—of which 85 percent are marginal farmers owning up to two acres of land—corporate entities. "It is noteworthy that the farmers by way of the impugned legislations are pitted against the Corporates with disproportionate bargaining powers, his plea said.
Farm acts exploit farmers, favour corporates
The prices for agricultural produce are sponsor-driven (corporate) and do not protect farmer interests. The new act does not guarantee that prices will not be sold below the minimum selling price (MSP) and or prices set by the Agriculture Produce Market Committee (APMC), says Jha in his plea. Viswam's concern mirrors Jha's submitting that the unregulated APMCs/Private Mandis contemplated envisioned under the new acts "will give exporters, processors and traders, the power to regulate the prices of the produce at their whims and fancies, thereby, creating artificial and leaving poor farmers at the mercy of the rich corporations."
"The farmers currently have the freedom to sell their farm produce to anyone anywhere. The freedom, however, is not real but is bereft of any safety or guarantees, to protect them against the superior bargaining force of the buyers," Jha said.
The dispute resolution mechanism under the act is inadequate and the entire scheme of dispute settlement is tilted in the sponsor's favour. "As per the Act the only way to resolve the dispute of payments, quality and specifications under the agreements, are conciliation and settlement by the local Authorities with appeal before the Collector," a plea read.
Prathapan's plea submits, the introduction of the 2003 APMC Model Act, ensured intermediaries would not be able to exploit farmers. Without this protective shield, the market will ultimately fall to corporate greed who are more profit-oriented.
Farm acts assault federal structure of the Constitution
The Parliament, in September, passed the three farm acts, by a voice vote despite the Opposition MPs asking for a division vote (a recorded vote). The ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government also ignored demands to send the contentious acts before a select committee of the House for further scrutiny and examination.
The bills were passed without considering the five resolutions moved by the opposition MPs and two separate motions demanding the reference to a Select or Standing Committee of Parliament," Vishwam's plea pointed out. "Furthermore, there was lack of any proper and meaningful representation/consultation and opinions were not taken from the stakeholders before passing these Bills," he added. "That the government through the Bills is undermining the authority of the state, hampering the federal structure," Vishwam said.
Noting the lack of legislative the pleas submit the passage of the act "amid a large unprecedented fiasco and despite the largest ever-witnessed by the Opposition" has "a wearing and devastating effect" on the federal system.
The process by which the acts were passed makes it "liable to be struck down as unconstitutional, illegal and void," Dhakad said.
The government, through the Bills, is undermining state authority and "hampering the federal structure". It creates two trade areas, one trade area under the new Bills, and another under the existing APMC. The Bills are also silent on the licenses in this new trade area, which will make farmers vulnerable to unscrupulous practices, as states will not be able to regulate it.
The farm acts are nothing but transgressions into the legislative powers of the State, Vishwam stated. "There was no need whatsoever for the Centre to legislate in such a tearing hurry, exceeding its legislative competency, in a matter entrusted exclusively to the State," he added. "Further, though the legislation was enacted under the guise of alleged reforms for the farmers, their interests were not even considered. There is no reason why such a law should have been brought in the midst of a pandemic, without proper broad-based consultation of stakeholders in a manner that evidently reflects the Centre's scant regard for the Parliamentary Procedures," Vishwam's plea read.
The Essential Commodities Act, 1955 had disproportionately empowered the Centre in the management of agriculture, and it is the 2020 amendment of this Act which has been brought in to further increase the powers of the Centre in the agriculture sector. "Because, when monopoly is there, there is no way for fair play or fair competition and only a few people take advantages of it," the CPI leader said.