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The agricultural reforms 2020 and the protest in the parliament

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Ankit Raj
Ankit Raj
A development professional. National resource person for rural development and good governance. Passionate about foreign policy and global politics. A poet by instinct.

India provides employment to around 70% of its rural households primarily in agriculture[1]. But it engages only 5% of the youth of India[2]. This means that the fattest section of the youth population is aloof from the primary production job and doesn’t find the incentives of the agriculture sector sticky enough. The legacy of the Government system in India is synonymous to lethargy and ineffectiveness because of several obvious problems. India is one of those rare economies whose economic journey marks the secondary sector as “skipped” and it was a mistake. Now, when the global power balance is adjusting itself and India is realizing its own weight, the nation is seriously trying to correct the historical mistakes and strengthen the tummy of its economic body i.e. the secondary sector. This revisit is un-ignorable as India cannot afford to leave the hard-earned front-foot in the global developmental chain. But, some of the policymakers in India are perhaps not ready to digest the reality that the changing landscape has made the old calculations increasingly difficult to practice and this is manifested by recent misinformation campaign and undignified behaviour in the parliament.

The Agricultural Reform through two bills namely 1- The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, 2020; 2- The Farmers (Empowerment And Protection) Agreement On Price Assurance And Farm Services Bill, 2020 are made the major vehicles of disruption in the work of parliament in the last couple of days by some of the Parliamentarians of opposition parties. The bases of their protesting arguments are two – 

1.Acts make farmers more vulnerable as the corporates will now be dealing directly with them. The perceived threat is rooted in a very practical imagination that the cunning corporates may deceive the gentle farmers and that may create life threats. At the time of receiving this argument, one can easily accept it. But the problem pops up when we see from the solution perspective. Are the farmers realizing their full potential in the current establishment? Is Indian agriculture attractive enough to retain a proportionate population and generate enough return? Are farmers not being exploited? – the one-word answer to all the three questions is “NO”. The major long-standing problems of grand Indian Agriculture framework are storage infrastructure, market linkages, technology injection, and investment.

The trade and commerce bill focused on the increased mobility of funds and technology towards agriculture and the intensified flow of farm produce in the supply chain. When it comes to the fixation of price, it seems that the central government remained considerate about the federalism. The constitution has already provided an exclusive mechanism to provide farmers empowerment and safeguard about their rights through states. The Part IXB (Article 243ZH to Article 243ZT) has exclusively talked about the cooperatives which are essential to come into existence as per the law of the state assembly. So, as far as the security of rights of the farmers is concerned, the states have enough room to regulate it through local governments which is exclusively its responsibility. The benefit of this is that the state will be able to increase the depth of its purse and mitigate the grand challenge of unemployment in a partial manner which eventually eases the maintenance of law and order.

But yes, from the political perspective, the representative of states in the Rajya Sabha may definitely feel weakened as the provision is taking a major game away from them. Griffith observes in his book The impasse of democracy (1939) this situation very aptly by saying “Control of economic life and of those social services were two major functions of a state and the local governments. The first one has largely passed into national hands and the latter one is passing by to the local hands. If these both go, what we shall have left of state autonomy will be a hollow shell, a symbol”.

The question that arises now is Shouldn’t the union be considerate about the room for states to play? The answer is in strong affirmation. Yes. It must be. But that does not give it the scope to be indifferent to the failure which may extend the nation’s wait of achieving the national goals. Since the Indian Union is of nature “Indestructible Union with destructible states”, the failure or delay in development makes the union exclusively responsible and that this is the very opportunity which Indian states have been seen exploiting multiple times due to their political angst or corruption. Hence, the union is bound to translate the de-jure unitary provisions into the de-facto situation. And the nation may genuinely expect the members of the upper and permanent house to understand its need at present.

2. The second bottom line of protest by the protestors is that the demand of members is not heard, and the demand is to take the bill back or send it to a select committee of the parliament on the basis of the fact that the spirit of the Parliament is “Debate and Discussion” with the principle the wisdom of ‘We’ is better than the wisdom of ‘I’. This demand attracts a little bit of attention but it immediately brings embarrassment because the bill is not something new. It has been in the Manifesto of both Congress and BJP and officially in effect since the 5th of June 2020 as an ordinance. Are our parliamentarians in the opposition not aware of it? It’s an impossible situation. So what is it missing which they think needs to be discussed in the select committee or is it just a trick to delay the legislation? Or by riding this vehicle to create ruckus in the house, do they want to prove that this is “knee-jerk legislation”? It can be anything! But if it is, the fact underlines that the legislators are probably unaware of the national interest which will be influenced by their shortsighted goals.

The protests from farmers have also been from very selective geography and there is a high chance of it being motivated politically. Hence, the youth of the country is quite confused amongst questions like:

  • Is Union government authorized to make this kind of intervention?
  • Is it really putting farmers on threat?
  • Is it a topic of national interest?

Let’s answer the questions in their sequence: 

  • De-jure the union government is only temporarily empowered to attain unitary nature. The 7th schedule listed out the items for the union, state and concurrent list and laid provisions for the union and state in Articles 245-255. But the de-facto is quite expanded, and it creates room for the union to go extreme unitary nature at most of the times. This extremism may be understood from the heavy dependence of states on the union, extreme control of the union in legislative processes and the deliberate weakening craft for states.
    • The economic dependence of states is underlined by the prohibition of external borrowings and their secondary control on tax collection. The states are heavily dependent on the grants of the union government because they do not have enough own source of revenue. Although states have a great say in the GST Council, their recommendations do not have any binding effect on the union. 
    • The union government – in practice – enjoys extreme control on the legislation of states’ assemblies. Apart from the over-riding legislative provisions in case of emergency and incompetency under Article 250 (2), the establishment of the office of Governor gives the union an unchallenged edge. Any legislation at the level of the state becomes a law only if the governor gives his/her assent to the bill passed by one or both the house of the state assembly where the authority to withhold the bill for consideration of president is the most blanket authority having some limitations in the case of Money Bills. The Governor is called an “Agent of the union government in the state” because it is exclusively responsible to ensure that the interest of the union and the High Court remain intact having the scope of ignoring the aid and advice tendered by the council of Ministers of the state assembly. Under Article 156(1), the very existence of Governor is based on the pleasure of the President of India who is bound to function in accordance with the aid and advise tendered by the Council of Ministers as per Article 71 which is not directly open for judicial review. So, if the Governor withholds a bill and sends it to the President for his/her consideration, as per Article 201, there is no exclusive binding provision on the president to provide his/her assent. And thus, the state assembly is completely controlled by the Union.
    • In terms of implementing the overruling policies by the Union, we must note that the states function by the help of union services only. The nature of public services in India is not divisible. As per Article 312, the public servants have to follow the state and union law at the same time. And when it comes to the state-craft – the whole administration, the law and order and investigation services are provided to the state by the employees deputed by the Central Government. In light of Art 312(A), the Chief Minister cannot dismiss an IAS Officer and can just initiate the disciplinary procedure. In the same manner, the police department is led and managed by the All India Services personnel who are directly parented by the Union. Same is the case with excise and crime investigation.
    • The states in Indian union are destructible and they do not have their own army to exert their territorial integrity and for that, they are completely dependent on the union.

So, it is but clear that Prof Wheare is apt to define the nature of Indian Federal Structure as “Unitary state with subsidiary federal feature rather than Federal state with a subsidiary unitary feature”.

In the Marburi Vs. Madison case in the USA the Chief Justice Marshall said “The judiciary has the power to examine the laws made by the legislature”. Article 13 of the Indian constitution describes the Judicial Review. And it is a part of Basic Structure of the constitution as per the judgement in the Keshavanand Bharati case (1973) and retrospectively utilized in I.R Coehlo case (2007). In Minerwa Mills case judgement, Justice Chandrachud summarized that “Anything and everything is under judicial review in India”. So, the point is that if the opposition leaders have strong material behind their claim of this bill creating a threat to the farmers, they must knock the doors of the Supreme Court of India invoking the breach of the Fundamental Right to Dignified Life under Article 21. That will eventually take the legislation through a judicial test and the country will be satisfied. Prima facie, the legislation is addressing all the pertinent issues related to the growth of Agriculture in India and is oriented towards opening-up the horizons for the farmers to have a decisive say in the supply chain.

The most controversial aspect of the discussion is that the topic of the legislation does not seem to be an issue of national interest. The reason for this conclusion in September 2020 brings me the smell of pre-COVID framework of deciding the Issues of National Interest. India’s national interest incorporates many things and security of all kinds is one of the elements. The security items very much include economic and strategic security. But it needs to be understood that the items of national interest are not fixed and they change along with the paradigm. Hence, the topics of national interest will be defined by India’s understanding of “Power” in the present paradigm. The current ways to power for the government of India seems to be going through national strength, international opportunities and quality of leadership[3].

Technology, connectivity and trade are at the heart of new contestations. And the new scenario is where the self-interest is naked to the extent where there are friends who differ and competitors who cooperate and both want to remain open-ended on their choices. Perhaps, that is why India has offered 300 Lines[4] of Credit to 64 countries in Africa involving 500+ projects circulating loan worth more than 28 Billion USD[5]. India has harped on the decision of using development partnership as a significant instrument in its diplomatic tool kit. And the opportunities in Africa are necessary because one it realizes its potential, it is bound to change the power equation of the world and India needs to be on the front foot to ensure a better quality of life for its people. So, to provide the nations who are aspirant of development with the good of their necessities, India has no time to lose in building its manufacturing capability. Otherwise, the debt-trap of China is already on the job encircling India and providing with very tough competition in International developmental influence mechanism. In that condition, putting the house in order as soon as possible for the government has to be the highest priority. And the issue of agricultural produce, marketing and innovation is the backbone of any country. How can it not be an item of national interest?

Clearly defined interests of nations are creating a situation where international relation is being built on narrower issues rather than broader approaches. To a large extent, world affairs now look like a global marketplace with less pre-conception and more transaction. Under Article 51 od the constitution of India, the Government is expected to promote international peace and security and India has a major stake in the same being the second most populous country of the world. Hence, the Union government is exclusively responsible to make ways for the state governments so that they may facilitate better standards of life to their citizens making them realize their full potential. The representatives and the nation builders, in general, have to be aware of the fact that the constitution of India enshrines the principle that “in spite of federalism, the national interest ought to be paramount” and hence the lawmakers may like to participate in the processes in a disciplined manner also not doing away with the fundamental job of keeping a check on the government to strike the balance in the national interest.

[3] The India Way, By S. Jaishankar, Minister of External Affairs, Government of India 

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Ankit Raj
Ankit Raj
A development professional. National resource person for rural development and good governance. Passionate about foreign policy and global politics. A poet by instinct.
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