The hour-long hearing on Monday witnessed sharp criticism of the government by the top court in handling the disputations over the recently enacted agricultural laws. (HT PHOTO)
The hour-long hearing on Monday witnessed sharp criticism of the government by the top court in handling the disputations over the recently enacted agricultural laws. (HT PHOTO)

Put farm laws on hold, or we will, SC tells govt

A bench headed by Chief Justice of India (CJI) SA Bobde asked the government if it was willing to pause the implementation of the laws; it said otherwise the court will do it, and also constitute a committee to examine the farmers’ grievances with the legislation.
PUBLISHED ON JAN 12, 2021 03:18 AM IST

The Supreme Court on Monday said it was “extremely disappointed” with the way the Union government was handling the controversy surrounding the three farm laws at the core of massive protests at the Capital’s borders, and indicated that these laws will have to be put on hold to create an atmosphere conducive for talks.

A bench headed by Chief Justice of India (CJI) SA Bobde asked the government if it was willing to pause the implementation of the laws; it said otherwise the court will do it, and also constitute a committee to examine the farmers’ grievances with the legislation.

“Why there should be an insistence to implement a law at any cost?” the bench asked attorney general KK Venugopal, and urged him to come back with a reply if the government was willing to stay the operation of the three laws of its own accord, because the court would otherwise be inclined to do so through a judicial order.

It also sought to confirm the consent of the farmers’ unions in joining the deliberations before the court-appointed committee, and asked their lawyer Dushyant Dave to consult the farmers and inform it on Tuesday, when the court will pass its order.

On Monday evening, the government filed a counter affidavit blaming “vested interests” for instigating the farmers’ protests, and suggested that it was not going to repeal the laws — a demand it described as “neither justifiable nor acceptable”.

Meanwhile, the Samyukt Kisan Morcha, a platform of major farm unions that is leading the protest, said it was grateful to the top court for suggesting that the laws be put on hold but refused to be a part of a panel to scrutinise the laws because it is “unanimous in the decision that laws must be repealed forthwith”.

The hour-long hearing on Monday witnessed sharp criticism of the government by the top court in handling the disputations over the recently enacted agricultural laws, which are meant to liberalise the farm economy, but which, the protesting farmers believe, will lead to monopolies controlled by big corporations while eroding the system of state-set minimum prices (MSPs).

As soon as the hearing commenced before the bench, which also included justices AS Bopanna and V Ramasubramanian, the A-G drew the court’s attention towards the next round of talks slated for January 15.

But the bench retorted: “We don’t wish to hear all this.We are extremely disappointed with the way the government is handling this issue. We don’t know what kind of consultation went on before you brought this law. And since the last three-four times, you have been telling us we are talking; we are talking. What are you talking? How are you talking?”

As Venugopal tried to elaborate that the consultation regarding these farm laws began in 2010 when the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) was in power, the court shot back: “We understand what you’re trying to tell us but it won’t help the government to say some other government started this. We understand the kind of arguments you are trying to make. You should reserve it for when we start hearing this matter finally.”

Rejecting the A-G’s submission that negotiations were still on, the CJI lamented that the court specifically asked the government during a hearing on December 17 if they were willing to put the laws in abeyance, but there was still no answer.

“What is the pressing need involved in his? Hold this in abeyance. This matter is becoming worse and worse; people are committing suicides,calling names to each other, they are protesting in this cold weather. There is no social distancing. Old people, women and children are out in the cold without any safety. We don’t even know if they have food and water,” the court observed.

“Our intention is to see if we can bring about an amicable solution to the parties,” stressed the bench, saying it would set up a committee, which could be headed by a former CJI and would comprise members from the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) and similar organisations, to hear representatives of both sides to discuss and resolve the dispute.

At this, Venugopal said the government had no problem with constitution of the committee but a law could not be stayed in such a “drastic” manner when none of the petitioners had raised arguments on either lack of power with the Centre to frame these laws or violation of any fundamental right and constitutional provision.

The bench, however, responded: “You are in this state because you haven’t been able to solve the problem. You have framed a law, which has resulted into strikes and protests which you should have solved. We read the talks are breaking down only because farmers want laws to be repealed while the government wants to discuss it clause by clause. We cannot wait. We will make the atmosphere conducive for talks. With so much jarring over this law, we will put it on hold so that talks can go on.”

Solicitor general Tushar Mehta, also appearing for the government during Monday’s hearing, sought to emphasise that the laws were progressive, already operational and that a “vast majority” felt they were beneficial too.

Some other farmers’ groups, such as Indian Kisan Union and Bharatiya Kisan Sangh, supported the S-G in saying that these laws were good for farmers and that they should not be suspended. The bench, however, said that this “vast majority” should also go to the committee and present its views since the court was “not an expert on agriculture or economics”.

Representing a Delhi resident who complained against the blockades along the Delhi borders, senior counsel Harish Salve intervened during the hearing to state that the protesters should agree to shift and decongest now that the court is in favour of either staying the laws or at least the controversial clauses in it.

To this, the bench said that it did not want any criticism that the court was slighting the right to protests and that the protests could carry on.

“Right to protest should be exercised the way Mahatma Gandhi did it and the protest was on a much larger scale. Right to protest has to be exercised peacefully. We are not here to protect breaking of the law but we are trying to ensure no such incident takes place in future,” it said.

It further observed: “The most serious question occupying the mind of this court is a possible loss of life and property. We have an apprehension that someday because of some incident, there will be a breach of peace.Each one of us will be responsible if anything goes wrong. We don’t want anybody’s blood or injury on our hands...who is going to be responsible if there is a bloodshed. We are constitutional court and we have a duty to protect people’s life and property. Who will be responsible if something serious happens tomorrow?”

CJI Bobde asked Dave, HS Phoolka, Colin Gonsalves, Prashant Bhushan, and other lawyers representing the farmers’ unions, to make an appeal on his behalf to the old people, women and children to go back to their homes in the interest of their safety and health due to Covid-19.

“Passions may be high at this time but you must send old, women and children back to their homes due to Covid, cold, etc. If the laws are stayed, there is nothing to fight for but to only talk,” said the bench.

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