Farm laws: Supreme Court panel member wants tribunal for disputes

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September 20, 2021 5:15 AM

The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Act 2020, too, have similar provisions.

Though he was non-committal on whether this view was taken by the panel, such a proposal could address one of the main concerns of the agitating farmers.Though he was non-committal on whether this view was taken by the panel, such a proposal could address one of the main concerns of the agitating farmers.

Prominent farmer leader Anil Ghanwat, who is on a panel of experts appointed by the Supreme Court on the Centre’s farm laws, has suggested that a tribunal be set up to resolve any dispute between a farmer and a trader under the new, contentious farm laws, instead of the “flawed” provision of letting the bureaucracy sort out the issue.

The tribunal, comprising sitting and retired judges, should focus only on such disputes, Ghanwat, the leader of the Shetkari Sanghatana, said.

Though he was non-committal on whether this view was taken by the panel, such a proposal could address one of the main concerns of the agitating farmers.

Protesting farmers from Punjab and Haryana have flayed the dispute settlement provisions of the new legislations, saying they seek to replace the role of judiciary with bureaucracy, among others.

Ghanwat’s comments are significant as the SC-appointed panel has already submitted its report and some of its members said that the panel merely chronicled the views elicited from stakeholders, rather than make any recommendations.

One of the new laws – the Farmers Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act 2020 — stipulates that sparring parties can seek a “mutually acceptable solution through conciliation” by filing applications before a sub-divisional magistrate (SDM). The SDM is empowered to refer the dispute to a ‘Conciliation Board’ having two or four members.

However, if the conciliation efforts fail, parties can again approach the SDM, who will settle the dispute. The aggrieved party can, however, challenge her/his order before the collector. These orders will have the sanctity of the directive of a civil court, the law says. These disputes were earlier adjudicated by the civil courts.

The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Act 2020, too, have similar provisions.

Ghanwat said there are some flaws in the current farm laws, including the dispute resolution framework. “Farmers do not have faith in them (bureaucrats). Moreover, they have too much work and will not be able to devote time for this kind of work. Instead, there should be a tribunal-type arrangement, with judges focusing only on this kind of work,” he said.

He also pitched for the abolition of the Essential Commodities Act, which empowers the government to impose stock limits if retail prices of onion and potato rise 100%. “The Act has to be scrapped or the price rise limit of 100% should be increased. It must be invoked only in cases of emergency like war and should not be used to keep consumers happy or because there are elections around the corner,” he said.

Ghanwat felt the government needs to improve the extant procurement system based on the minimum support price (MSP). At times, the government intervention only brings down prices, he said. “The policy should be such that prices don’t fall below MSP,” he said. At the same time, when the MSP gets a formal legal backing, nobody else but the government is allowed to purchase at that price. So, there are no private buyers in the market, which harms the farmers more, he observed.

Moreover, only export-quality produce is currently procured by the government, which leaves many farmers in the lurch, he added. There should be no barrier to trade and no intervention from the government side. “Let the private traders do whatever they want,” he felt.

Ghanwat cited the example of Himachal Pradesh, where apple farmers are complaining about low realisation of their produce and blaming Adani Agri Fresh. “Adani has been into this business for years and has set up cold storage, buys from farmers and sells the fruit when prices are high. There is no point in blaming corporations. They build infrastructure,” he said.

Recently, Ghanwat had also demanded that the report of the expert panel on the three farm laws be made public quickly. “I am a farmer myself and a farmer leader. Seeing farmers sitting on streets for months together is a very disheartening sight and the government is doing nothing,” he pointed out.

He said the committee completed the task in two months, seeing the urgency of the matter. However, it is now over five-and-a-half months and the matter has not been listed or taken up for hearing, he added. The agitating farmers will either accept the report or ask for a repeal of the laws but a debate is required, he said. The longer it takes, the bigger the problem may grow, he said.

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