India’s Supreme Court yesterday put on hold the implementation of three controversial farm laws, a setback for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration.
A three-judge bench headed by Chief Justice of India Sharad A. Bobde ordered an indefinite stay on the implementation of the laws passed in September last year and formed a panel to facilitate talks with tens of thousands of farmers staging protests on the outskirts of the national capital for nearly two months.
“We have the power to make a committee and the committee can give us the report,” he said. “We will protect farmers.”
During a virtual hearing on Monday, Bobde said the impasse between the two sides was causing distress to farmers, and that the situation at the protest sites was only getting worse.
“Each one of us will be responsible if anything goes wrong,” Bobde told Indian Attorney General K.K. Venugopal, who was arguing for the government.
The lawyer for one of the big farmers union Dushyant Dave did not join the hearing.
The judges said they would resume hearing on Monday next week.
The order, an attempt to find a way out of the stalemate between the government and protesters, comes a day after Bobde said the court was “extremely disappointed at the way the government has handled all this,” including the lack of adequate consultation before the laws were passed.
Eight rounds of talks with leaders representing farmers have failed even as more than 60 farmers are reported to have lost their lives braving cold weather.
The court refused to give more time to the government to find a solution and said the panel would hold discussion with both the parties.
It will submit a report to the court, the bench said without specifying a deadline.
A detailed order is awaited.
However, farmer unions rejected the idea of the expert committee and reiterated their demand for a total repeal of the laws.
The government says the farmers are being misled and the new laws that lift curbs on who can purchase agricultural produce would remove middlemen and increase farmers’ income.
It says the laws aim to modernize an antiquated farming system, bedeviled by wastage and bottlenecks in the supply chain.
Modi had in his first term promised to double farmers’ incomes by next year.
Protesting farmers have said the reform measures would benefit large private buyers and harm growers. They say the laws are an attempt to erode a longstanding mechanism that ensures farmers a minimum support price for their crops.
The protesters, opposition parties and some of Modi’s allies fear that private companies might replace existing middlemen and the absence of guaranteed government-set minimum price would force farmers to make distress sales.
Appearing for a group of farmers, Dave on Monday told the court that more than 400 unions from across the country and more than 100,000 people were participating in the protests.
“It is a question of farmers’ existence,” he said.
The protesting farmers say they would not leave until the government repeals the laws.
Government negotiators and farmer representatives are to meet again for talks on Friday.
On Dec. 30, the two sides reached a consensus on two issues — that the government would continue its subsidy of electricity for irrigating farms, and that farmers would not be punished for burning crop residues, a cause of air pollution.
Additional reporting by Reuters
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