Apex court offers a face-saver
The Supreme Court has offered the government and farm leaders a face-saving solution to the eyeball-to-eyeball stand-off over three farm laws that overhauled, among other things, decades-old agri-marketing laws. On Monday, the three-judge Bench headed by Chief Justice S A Bobde, hearing a batch of petitions on the validity of these laws, suggested that the Centre would do well to stay the implementation of these laws till a committee was constituted by the court to discuss the issue — otherwise the court would do so for it. Last month, the Bench indicated it would set up a committee with the government and farmers’ representatives to discuss ways of breaking the deadlock. In the circumstances, these two solutions are sensible. But it is unclear why the government had not thought of these steps first — after all, committee deliberations are a time-honoured practice in government to negotiate deadlocks between competing interests. The fact that the latest strictures carry the weight of the highest court, however, offers both parties the opportunity of dignified disengagement. This withdrawal, however temporary, was urgently needed. The confrontation was becoming untenable on both sides and developing political ramifications that the government could do without as it prepares to roll out the Covid-19 vaccination programme later this month.
Three points about the Supreme Court’s pronouncements are worth noting. One is the somewhat stern tenor of the language. Second, the apex court has based its statement on the fact that no farmer representative has come forward to describe the laws as progressive. Third, the court has not stayed the laws themselves, but has suggested their implementation (such as formulating the rules) be kept in abeyance. All three points suggest that the government has probably lost the battle of public opinion on this issue, no matter how robust the economic arguments that underlie the laws. Had the government chosen not to rely on its brute parliamentary majority to pass these laws, those opposing them on narrow concerns over the minimum support price may have understood their broader impact. Instead, the unseemly haste with which the laws were passed in a Parliament session truncated by an outbreak of Covid-19 among lawmakers without a modicum of informed debate has not benefited anyone.
Besides, it has been forced to make significant concessions on other issues such as scrapping penalties for farmers burning stubble, which pollutes the National Capital Region each year, and holding the rise in power tariffs without reciprocal compromises from the farmer negotiators. It is unclear why the government did not announce an abeyance of the laws and move ahead with the Supreme Court in forming the committee that had been mandated last month. Now that the court has suggested the names of former Chief Justices of India, including Justice R M Lodha, to head the panel, the government has lost the initiative. And with the committee now a Supreme Court initiative, the government has effectively ceded executive power to the judiciary. As with coal, telecom, and even the Board of Control for Cricket in India, such a judicial drift into the executive domain has not ended well. A unique chance to overhaul archaic monopsony may have been weakened.