New Delhi: Kerala Congress MP from Thrissur, T.N. Prathapan, moved the Supreme Court Monday challenging the constitutional validity of the recently promulgated The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, 2020.
Prathapan, in his petition, said the law violated Articles 14 (equality), 15 (prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion, race, caste, sex and place of birth) and 21 (right to liberty) of the Constitution. It is, hence, liable to be declared as illegal and void, said the plea.
The MP also made specific challenges to various sections of the law, asking the court to strike them down as unconstitutional. The secretary of the Union Ministry of Agriculture, the Department of Agriculture and Cooperation, and the Union Ministry of Law and Justice have been named as respondents in his petition.
The law ministry had Sunday notified the bill along with two others — The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill, 2020 and the The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, 2020 — after they received presidential assent.
Opposition parties had urged the President to not sign the three contentious bills, calling them anti-farmer and corporate-friendly. There was also a huge uproar in the Parliament’s monsoon session when the three bills were passed amid vehement protests.
The passage of the three bills also saw the exit of Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) from the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). SAD had been NDA’s oldest ally ever since the two forged a pre-poll alliance ahead of the 1997 Punjab assembly elections.
‘Bills hastily passed without adequate discussion’
In his petition, Prathapan stated that a bare reading of The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, 2020 will reveal that it is not a progressive legislation.
The bill’s implementation will spell “disaster for the farming community by opening an unregulated market”, the petition said, one where power will be concentrated in the hands of a few corporates/individuals, multinationals and moneylenders.
The plea also said such a scenario will give enough room for a “parallel market” to exploit the farmer community. A farmer himself, Prathapan said the Parliament passed the law hastily without having an adequate discussion on it.
“Even after staunch opposition by the opposition and protest by farmers…the Hon’ble President of India granted assent to the farmers,” the petition said.
‘Act against basic structure of Constitution’
According to Prathapan’s petition, certain provisions of the law are against the basic structure of the Constitution and the farmers’ fundamental rights.
The provision entails a farmer to approach the “already overburdened bureaucracy” for a remedy to problems, instead of getting an effective and permanent solution at a court of law, argued the petition.
One of the many flaws in the law, the petition said, is that it does not provide special farmer-centric courts, similar to the ones created to settle labour and consumer disputes.
The law gives responsibility to the sub-divisional magistrate who already has multiple other duties and functions to perform, said the petition. The MP also raised apprehension that an unregulated market could result in unchecked hoarding that will give exporters, processors and traders the power to regulate prices as and when they needed.
‘Dispute resolution system unclear’
Prathapan also highlighted some problematic sections in the law. According to the petition, the legislation identifies a farmer as an individual engaged in the production of farming produce by self or by hired labour, and includes the Farmer Producer Organisations (FPO).
An FPO, formed by a group of farm producers, is a registered body with producers as shareholders in the organisation.
The law, however, does not identify a labourer, tiller or share cropper as a farmer. This, the petition said, is discriminatory as it undermines their effort and leaves out the rights of such persons who actually do the hard work.
The petition further said the requirement for an agreement between a farmer and a sponsor or any third party, prior to the production or rearing of any farming produce of predetermined quality, was a “recipe for disaster”. The predetermined clause will give the sponsor an opportunity to make “flimsy excuses” and refuse the yield or re-negotiate the price.
According to Section 13 of the law, every farming agreement shall explicitly provide for a conciliation process and the formation of a conciliation board, consisting of representatives of parties to the agreement. However, according to the petition, this particular section does not define or make clear who will be allowed to represent the parties.
Therefore, the plea stated, the dispute resolution system is unclear on how effective assistance will be provided to farmers.
And, in case the agreement does not provide for a conciliation process, then the parties to the failed farming agreement can approach the concerned sub-divisional magistrate to resolve the dispute.
“Through this provision, the government wants a laissez’faire market by making our already overburdened bureaucracy to help solve farmers’ issues …, thus this particular system of adjudication is already destined to fail,” the MP submitted.
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