Govt denies RTIs on agri laws citing court hearings
The Centre has cited hearings in the Supreme Court and high courts on the three farms bills and the Niti Aayog Council not having studied a report on amendments to the Essential Commodities Act as reasons to deny information on the these bills to separate Right To Information (RTI) applications filed by activists.
Several RTI applications have been filed with the agriculture ministry and Niti Aayog since November 27, when farmers from Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh started their protests against the three farm bills.
The farmer bodies are seeking repeal of the three farm bills. The government has ruled out repealing of the laws and said consultations were being held with states and other stakeholders over the past decade.
In his RTI application, Noida-based activist Vikrant Tongad sought inspection of all files related to the farm bills; another activist, Anjali Bhardwaj of Satark Nagrik Sangathan (SNS) wanted to know whether pre-legislative consultation on the bills was done.
In a reply to Tongad, Ashish Bagde, central public information officer of the department of agriculture cooperation and farmer welfare, said the information sought involves laws challenged in the Supreme Court and high courts. “As such being a sub-judice matter it may not be feasible at this moment to provide the information under section 8 (1) (b) of the RTI Act, 2005,” Bagde said.
Section 8 (1) (b) prohibits sharing of the information which has been “expressly forbidden to be published” by the court or tribunal and where providing such information may constitute contempt of court. “No court has so far prohibited the government from sharing of information on farm bills,” said Nikhil Dey, a member of National Campaign for People’s Right to Information.
Bhardwaj filed two RTI applications. The first was with the agriculture ministry regarding the consultation with agriculture department of various states, some progressive farmers and prominent agriculture mandi (market) officials with respect to the three Ordinances.
She received the same reply that Tongad did.
Her second RTI application was filed with Niti Aayog on the High Powered Committee of Chief Ministers for Transforming Indian Agriculture, which the Central government claimed, had recommended changes in the Essential Commodities Act. She sought a copy of the committee’s report, details of all meetings of the committee and its minutes.
During the debate on the introduction of the three farm bills on September 14, 2020, junior agriculture minister Raosaheb Danve said that the amendments to the Essential Commodities Act were discussed and approved by the high powered committee. The amendments have removed stock limits for agriculture produce such as onions, cereal, pulses and oilseeds from the list of essential commodities so as to remove fear of private investors of excessive regulatory interference. Punjab chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh has already refuted his claim.
In a response to the application, NITI Aayog’s central public information officer, Manash Chaudhary, said he was “constrained” in sharing the committee’s report as the same was yet to be placed before the Governing Council of the body. He also said the minutes of the meetings cannot be shared as they are part of final report.
Bhardwaj said the reply clearly shows that the final report has not been discussed with all chief ministers. “It is unfortunate as the issue of deliberations and consultations on the ordinances and legislations are a matter of great public interest,” she said.
Venkatesh Nayak of Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative said the government should have proactively put information about public consultations on three farm laws in public domain.
He added that this would have shown that “ the government has done excessive consultation with stakeholders, as being claimed by ministers, and the farm laws have backing of prominent farmer bodies”.