MUMBAI – India’s Supreme Court has rapped the government over its handling of controversial new farm laws that have sparked debilitating protests and suggested the rushed legislation be put in abeyance.
The court said today a committee headed by a retired Supreme Court judge should review the laws, which farmers say favor corporate players and put them at a severe disadvantage.
Since late November, police have held back more than 100,000 farmers at points on the Delhi border, leaving them no choice but to sleep under trucks, tractor-trolleys and camp tents given by sympathizers.
A three-member Supreme Court bench headed by the Chief Justice on Monday expressed disappointment with the government for its ineffective handling of the protests and suggested the laws be put on hold until a committee with representatives of all stakeholders irons out the differences.
“We propose to form a committee and if government does not then we will stay the implementation of the farm acts,’’ Supreme Court Chief Justice Sharad Arvind Bobde said during the hearing as reported by Bar and Bench legal news service.
“We do not think [the] central government is handling the issue correctly. We have to take some action today. We don’t think you are being effective. If laws are put on hold then negotiations will have a chance to work out.’’
On June 5, the government pushed through an ordinance enacting three farm laws while the country was under the pandemic lockdown and Chinese troops were encroaching on Indian territories in Ladakh.
When parliament convened, the provisions were pushed through the upper house with a show of hands, overriding demands for a physical vote from opposition members.
The protests led by farmers from Punjab and Haryana has found support from many other farmer groups from Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar. The movement has struck a chord with most opposition political parties, too. Some of them have pleaded with the president not to implement the laws.
Live Law India legal news service reported Justice Bobde as saying, “We are sorry to say that you, as the Union of India, are not able to solve the problem. You have made a law without enough consultation resulting in a strike. So you have to resolve the strike.’’
Farmer unions say the government proposes to dismantle the present procurement system through the laws.
The government is also doing away with the minimum support price system, leaving farmers at the mercy of corporates who can manipulate prices and squeeze them for lower prices. A provision in the new law barring farmers from using the courts to seek justice is also cited as unfair and biased against them.
The key beneficiaries of the minimum support price system are farmers from Punjab and Haryana. They are also among the country’s richest farmers, hence their ability to stage vociferous protests.
Many Punjab farmers follow the Sikhism religion and work in the security forces in large numbers. As many as 50 farmers from their protest sites displayed their medals earned during their tenure in the forces.
Two government ministers have held about nine inconclusive meetings with 30 farmer union representatives for almost one and a half months. The next meeting is scheduled for January 15.
“I am not understanding whether you are part of the problem or solution?’’ the chief justice commented.
“People are committing suicide. People are suffering in the cold. Who is taking care of food and water?’’ the court said.
“We don’t know why these farmers are keeping old people and women on the ground. Why should old people be out in the cold? Each one of us will be responsible if something goes wrong. We don’t want anybody’s blood on our hands.”
The court was due to issue its formal order later on Monday or on Tuesday, the chief justice said.
Farmers unions have not yet formally commented on the court observations. However, Avik Saha, a key farmer activist, expressed his apprehension at the court order while some commentators said the court was providing the government a way out of the logjam.