The Narendra Modi government is considering referring the three contentious farm laws to a parliamentary committee, while keeping them suspended until suggestions by the panel are examined, as a way of ending the protracted showdown with farmers, a person familiar with the discussions said.
The proposed solution is under consideration at the highest level in the government, but a decision has not been taken, the person said, requesting anonymity. If the proposal is accepted, an announcement could be made in Parliament.
“State governments will also be requested to undertake reforms that are within their domain,” the person said.
Critics of the market-oriented farm laws have questioned the Centre for introducing the laws without adequate consultations and ignoring the precedent that changes to the Agriculture Produce Market Committee (APMC) system be left to state governments. Agricultural wholesale markets are regulated under the APMC Act enacted by the state governments. They were designed to prevent the exploitation of poor farmers by traders.
Queries emailed to the Prime Minister’s Office didn’t elicit any response.
It is, however, unclear how the government will send laws that have been notified on 27 September after being cleared by Parliament to a standing committee. “The laws are in force from the date of notification and, therefore, the central government and Parliament no longer have the power to hold them in abeyance or to refer them to a standing committee,” said P.D.T. Achary, a former secretary-general of Lok Sabha. “The only legal recourse for the government, if it wants to keep the laws in abeyance or refer them to a standing committee, is to first repeal the Acts and then introduce bills afresh, which can then be examined by the standing committee.”
However, if the laws are referred to the parliamentary panel, it will then invite views from states, experts, farmers unions and citizens before finalizing its recommendations.
A separate high-level expert group could also be set up in parallel to recommend a medium-term structural adjustment programme to make farming more eco-friendly, productive and remunerative for farmers in Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh. The expert group could be chaired by a senior technocrat, the person said.
“On the demand side, there is evidence that consumption patterns are already shifting from calories towards vitamins and proteins. The transition from food security to nutrition security needs to be achieved from the supply side. Higher income for farmers and crop diversification requires structural changes, not sudden shocks,” the person said.
Although the government has offered to suspend the laws for 18 months, farmer unions have stuck to their demand that they are scrapped. Farmers fear that the laws will make them dependent on market forces and pave the way for large firms to enter the farming business.
“The standing committee on agriculture can certainly examine the laws. However, to hold the laws in abeyance, Parliament approval will be needed, in my view,” a former top bureaucrat in the agriculture ministry said.
The Supreme Court on 12 January stayed the implementation of the three farm laws—Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020; Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020; and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020. The court has also constituted a panel to hear views of all stakeholders and report to the court. Thousands of farmers have been camping on the outskirts of Delhi since November, demanding that the government repeal the laws.