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SC irked over criticism of farm committee picks

The Supreme Court on Wednesday strongly defended its choice of members for the committee that will weigh in on the contentious farm laws, and cautioned critics against attributing motives to the court or “maligning” members of the panel just because they had in the past come out in favour of these legislation aimed at opening up farm markets
PUBLISHED ON JAN 21, 2021 12:15 AM IST

The Supreme Court on Wednesday strongly defended its choice of members for the committee that will weigh in on the contentious farm laws, and cautioned critics against attributing motives to the court or “maligning” members of the panel just because they had in the past come out in favour of these legislation aimed at opening up farm markets.

An SC bench led by Chief Justice of India (CJI) SA Bobde disapproved of the criticism, saying that “public opinion will not determine who should be a member and who should not” and that it had “serious objections” to people and the press casting aspersions either on members of the panel or the apex court.

“If you muster a public opinion to malign people, brand people, should that be a ground of disqualification? We have very serious objections to our members being called names, accused of bias etc. And then they say this court had some interest. What interest can we have? We entered into this in the interest of common people, especially farmers,” commented the bench, which also included justices AS Bopanna and V Ramasubramanian.

Emphasising that people have the right to hold an opinion and they were also entitled to change it at a later point in time like judges do sometimes, the CJI added that the members of this committee had reputations none of their critics actually had.

“They are some of the best minds, brilliant minds in this country. You cannot brand people like this. We are not forcing anyone to appear before the committee but there is no need to brand people, and on top of that, cast aspersion on the court. The Supreme Court appoints people and their reputations are torn to shreds like this. We don’t understand this. How lightly can this be taken?” asked the CJI.

The bench’s outburst was triggered by a plea by advocate Ajay Choudhary, who appeared for a farmers’ organisation from Rajasthan, Kisan Mahapanchayat. Choudhary had moved an application for reconstitution of the committee, which the court appointed on January 12 when it also stayed the implementation of the three laws in question.

The composition of this four-member committee triggered a controversy since all four had previously made statements in support of the reforms. The criticism was such that one of the members, BS Mann, later chose to leave the panel, expressing solidarity with the farmers.

The other three members are Pramod Kumar Joshi, the director for South Asia, International Food Policy Research Institute, New Delhi; agricultural economist Ashok Gulati and Anil Ghanwat of the Shetkari Sanghatana, a Maharashtra-based farm union. Gulati is the former chairman of the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices (CACP), the advisory body of the Government of India on food supplies and pricing policies.

While Choudhary cited various news reports about the committee members, senior counsel Dushyant Dave and advocate Prashant Bhushan, on being asked, said the eight farm unions, which they represented and were currently a part of the protest, had nothing to do with the composition of the committee because they did not want to engage with it at all.

At this point, apart from Choudhary, advocate AP Singh also pressed his application on behalf of the Bharatiya Kisan Union - Lokshakti, demanding removal of the other three members, alleging bias.

The bench was livid. “This has become almost a cultural thing to brand people and criticise them for one reason or another. The committee has not been given any power of adjudication. They only have been given the power of hearing parties. So, where is the question of a bias? If you don’t want to appear, don’t appear but why do you have to brand people like this? We are very sorry to see the kind of opinions published in the media.”

The court then asked attorney general KK Venugopal, who appeared for the Central government, to formally respond to the plea on reconstitution of the committee, and also address the issue of a vacancy that has arisen after Mann’s resignation.

Meanwhile, solicitor general Tushar Mehta, who represented the Centre and Delhi Police in the matter, supported the bench, saying it was unfortunate to see the kind of attacks being made on the committee members.

Senior advocate Harish Salve, who appeared for a Delhi resident, implored the bench to clarify that the committee’s role was confined to assisting the court and that it would do so even if no farmer union appeared before the panel. Salve added he was inclined to move a contempt plea if the committee members were “wrongly” criticised in the press.

At this, the bench included in its order a portion to the effect that the committee had not been set up to adjudge any issue but to only hear the parties. The committee’s role, the court order said, “is to share the grievances of the parties affected by the impugned legislations and make a report to the court.”

Thousands of farmers, mostly from Punjab and Haryana, have been camping at several Delhi border points since November 26, demanding a complete repeal of the three farm laws and legal guarantee of minimum support price for their crops. Enacted in September last year, the three laws have been projected by the Centre as major reforms in the agriculture sector that will remove middlemen and allow farmers to sell their produce anywhere in the country.

The protesting farmers have expressed apprehension that the new laws would pave the way for eliminating the safety cushion of the minimum support prices and do away with the “mandi” (wholesale market) system, leaving them at the mercy of big corporate entities.

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