The Farm Acts are farmer-unfriendly and in violation of important constitutional safeguards

Amidst the novel coronavirus pandemic, Indian farmers have marched their way to New Delhi. The reason behind the protest is a request to repeal the recently passed Farmers’ (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill.

Akin to stock trading

All three of these laws are palpable attempts to turn the activity of buying and selling farm produce into a form of stock exchange trade. However, the secret to successful farming has been in the handiwork of toil, rather than the ability to operate computers and nit-pick along contractual text, both of which the Farm Acts seem to impute into the life of a farmer.

First, the Acts have been passed by the Centre. However, agriculture remains a matter under the purview of the State List. The Centre has no jurisdiction to rule over agriculture even under the Concurrent List. And so, quite clearly there is an attempt to usurp powers explicitly given to States under Entries 14, 18, 46, 28 of the State List, by the Centre.

These Acts lack a legal framework in the way that they came into existence. Additionally the Acts deprive States of their revenue via any cess or levy. Therefore, these Acts are a challenge to the separation of powers which functions as the backbone to a democracy.

More costs possible

Second, in the way that the Acts change all kinds of farming trade into digital contractual terms reveals how there is an attempt at selling the farmer’s produce in a language that the farmer himself does not know. This lack of skill, knowledge and expertise will provoke farmers into hiring middlemen, thereby, increasing the operational cost for the farmer. Additionally, when such contracts are signed with multinational companies, farmers shall either be forced into paying hefty fees to lawyers to be able to dissect such contracts for them, or, in the alternative, open the floodgates of their exploitation at any time by such companies.

Legally, all of this interferes with the freedom of a farmer to carry out his own trade under Article 19(1)(f). By imposing such fetters in the way that the farmer earns his livelihood, there is a threat under Article 21 as well. This will also deny a decent standard of living by interfering in the way that such a ‘living’ is earned by the farmer, impinging on Article 43 of the Directive Principles of State Policy.

Gaps in definitions

Third, there are two particularly problematic definitions within the Acts. When these Acts define the term, “farmer”, they exclude the cropper, labourer, tiller, etc. The impact of this is that certain persons involved in producing crop are systemically excluded from the purview of the Act. This shall in turn, hinder, any rights that they might have gained access to via the Acts. While defining a “farming agreement,” rather than bestowing power to the farmer, a sponsor has the power to refuse the yield.

The sponsor has such power in the absence of any necessity on his part to give reasons to the farmer behind such refusal. This sponsor is also in-charge for checking legal compliance. This means that all legal blind-turns are open to legitimate exploitation by such sponsors.

Fourth, the Acts mandate trade to occur when the produce is of a “mutually acceptable quality, grade and standard.” The question here is, in the battle to secure “mutual acceptance”, what extent of exploitation are we willing to overlook — from environmental to labour to the farmer’s own.

In the attempt to secure produce of a “mutually acceptable quality”, there is every possibility that the farmer might be pressured into over-using his land either by excess plantation or by excessive use of chemicals, thus making it vulnerable to becoming barren.

Moreover, the quality check in such cases is to be done by a “third party”. This power has been given to a third party without any safeguards against such parties’ biases or prejudices. The unashamed misuse of the farmer and his resource to merely flood the coffers of a random multi-national company is visible at a bare perusal of such a provision in the Acts.

Fifth, the Acts in their dispute resolution provisions, fail to lay down who can represent the parties involved in such a dispute. The Act goes on to then to overburden an already overworked Sub-Divisional Magistrate in the absence of such a conciliation process elucidated in the farming agreement.

No right to appeal

And, finally, the most inhumane of all provisions are those that take away the right of appeal from a farmer. The state exercising its power through multiple bureaucrats seems to have elevated itself to the status of god himself, whose decisions are immune from challenge.

There is a glaring absence of any power being given to the farmer in the event that the decision delivered by the above authority is biased, a product of corruption, prejudiced or simply a manifestation of the said authority’s bad mood. We must commemorate the access to justice accorded by the Constitution under Articles 14 and 21, at this juncture.

Apart from this, the Acts use multiple subjective terms such as “extraordinary circumstances” and “extraordinary price rise”. Even words such as “horticultural produce” and “non-perishable agricultural foodstuffs” are used so callously that they open up a contract to multiple disputes over interpretation.

Clearly the Acts seem to defy the safeguards that the makers of the Constitution created it to stand for.

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