Punjab sows but will not reap
GUEST COLUMN Saying that the state can no longer impose a market fee on trade conducted in its own physical space is nothing short of a territorial invasion through legislative action. A veritable Trojan Act.Updated: Sep 21, 2020, 21:17 IST
The last few weeks have seen the farmers of Punjab take up arms against three laws being passed by Parliament.
Originally styled as ordinances, these were the Farmers Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Ordinance, 2020; the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Ordinance, 2020; and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Ordinance, 2020. The distress is largely about the first piece of legislation.
The soul of India lives in her villages, as was declared by the Mahatma. So, when laws are passed affecting the underlying substratum of agrarian life, there is bound to be turmoil. While legally permissible, the fact that the government first tried to sneak in these laws through ordinances as opposed to a properly debated legislation weakened confidence in them. There was after all no emergency need for such legislation through an ordinance. The ordinance had stated that “the President is satisfied that circumstances exist which render it necessary for him to take immediate action”. One wonders what these urgent circumstances might have been. The fact that these ordinances have then been subsequently legitimised through legislation has not cured the trust deficit into which they were born.
AGRICULTURE A STATE SUBJECT
Apart from being labelled anti-farmer, pro-big conglomerate, questionable price protection mechanisms, these laws throw up a gamut of issues from the legal perspective. Agriculture is purely a state subject; so says entry 14 of List II of the seventh schedule to the Constitution. As is fisheries at entry 21, trade and commerce within the state at entry 26 and markets at entry 28. Even the non-existent taxes on farm income’s at entry 46. Hence, Parliament possesses no legal competence to enact such law and this is strictly within the legislative dominion of the state governments.
Ironically, the legislation states that it is to provide the freedom of choice relating to sale and purchase of farm produce and inter-state and intra-state trade. This no doubt drags it under entry 42 of the Union List of matters in the Constitution for which Parliament can legislate. But this choice was always there. We did not need a new law to affirm this.
A farmer in Punjab was free to sell his produce in Haryana; as was a farmer from Himachal Pradesh free to trade in Punjab. And, they did so. The legislation first sets up a superfluous objective to justify itself, and then pretends to achieve it.
Even the body of the legislation betrays signs of having been stretched to, on the one hand, retrofit itself into legal parameters of Parliament’s legislative competence and on the other hand achieve the intended aim of substituting the state’s power of regulation of agro markets and produce.
Since Parliament’s limited concurrent power to legislate under entry 33 of List III is confined to inter-state trade of “foodstuffs”, the law through the definition of “farmers produce” includes “foodstuffs such as wheat, rice, or other coarse grains, pulses”.
FINANCIALLY CRIPPLING EFFECT
By creating the definition of “scheduled farmed produce” which covers produce which is otherwise regulated by the state Acts, it directly impinges on the state’s power to regulate such produce. The convoluted definition of “trade area” when distilled means that but for mandis and other private markets under the existing state Act, virtually any and every part of the state of Punjab is a trade area and governed by this Central legislation.
The financially crippling effect of this is achieved through Section 6 which prohibits the states from imposing any market fee on such a “trade area”, effectively saying that the state can no longer impose a market fee on trade conducted in the physical space of its own state. This is nothing short of a territorial invasion through legislative action. A veritable Trojan Act.
APMC HAS STOOD THE TEST OF TIME
Nor was any of this necessary. Punjab already has the Agricultural Produce Markets Act, 1961, (APMC), which has stood the test of time. Despite its rustic origins, the mandis governed by the Mandi Board have grown organically to take care of the needs of all concerned; a perfect marriage of free trade and regulation. The necessity of being licensed to trade (just as in any other regulated activity) creates an umbrella of oversight and accountability. This is gravely missing in the new law.
Dispute resolution being conducted by/through the market committees has the local persuasive value that may not be completely substitutable by another system. For a farmer who may not have the confidence of a city education or a distribution network, a familiar face is often the impetus for ease of trade. There are numerous safety checks in the state Act missing in the Central law.
The true mission of this legislation is to what any state would loath, the decimation of the local market system and the abolition of the state/district mandi boards. The true purpose of legislation should be either to protect its citizen’s rights or to govern more effectively. It should never be used as a medium of subterfuge much less as a political weapon. It is unfortunate that this weapon is being fired off the shoulders of those who are perhaps the most fragile class of all: Farmers. They deserve a better harvest than this. email@example.com
The writer is advocate general of Punjab