The country is presently engulfed in peaceful protests by farmers, a community that has largely known to be organised yet silent; a community that toils hard to drive the farming sector and to ensure food security for the countrymen. According to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas (2018), a farmer is any person who engages or who seeks to engage alone, or in association with others or as a community, in small-scale agricultural production for subsistence and/or for the market, and who relies significantly, though not necessarily exclusively, on family or household labour and other non-monetized ways of organizing labour.
The farmers and their representative organisations are currently agitating the three bills that have been passed by the Parliament in its monsoon session. Farmers Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill are three bills that are set to become laws as they have been passed by both houses of the Parliament where the ruling party, BJP, has a sizeable majority. Despite the massive uproar of the opposition, tearing rule books and creating a ruckus over passage of bills by a voice vote, the bills have been passed. Aside from the fact that this was an absolute mockery of democratic governance and legislation, lies the fact that these bills have led large scale farmers protests across the country while bringing in focus the question, do farmers have rights enshrined in our Constitution?
The answer to this question has to be, ‘Yes’. The Indian Constitution, the lengthiest written Constitution in the world, has embodied several principles of a democratic government with its basis in fundamental rights, which is the crux on which the Constitution stands. While the Constitution may not have enshrined specific rights for farmers, it is left to the interpretation of constitutional courts like the Supreme Court as well as the legislature while making laws so that the same must be realised. While the Parliament’s passage of the three bills, without any dialogue and consultation with stakeholders, is antithetical to the Constitution, let us have a look at which parts of the Constitution the government should have read and interpreted before passing those three laws.
The Part III of the Constitution is dedicated to Fundamental rights enshrined under Article 12 to Article 35.
In the beginning itself, under Article 13, the Constitution states that all laws that are inconsistent with or are in derogation of the fundamental rights will be void. The main object of Article 13 is to secure the paramountcy of the Constitution in regard to fundamental rights.
Article 14 bestows equality before the law. In one of the interpretations of the Article, is the concept of “mala fide” which states that any action taken by the State in undue haste may be held to be mala fide as interpreted by the Supreme Court in Inderpreet Singh Kahlon v. State of Punjab.
The three bills are also being criticised for not giving a fair playing field to all farmers, small and big, while allowing farmers to sell produce in international markets and to private players directly stand to benefit big and wealthy farmers, the diminishing role of the Agriculture Produce Market Committees (APMCs) will lead to small farmers losing their voice as well as their market completely. These laws seem to benefit corporates and big farmers and hence the question of equality before law and equal protection of law under Article 14 arises here.
Further, Article 19, sub-clauses (a), (b) and (c) apply to farmers as much as they apply to any other citizen of India. The right to freedom of speech and expression, the right to assemble peaceably and right to form associations or unions are all important fundamental rights and germane to the current state of affairs where farmers are gathering on the streets to make their dissent against the government’s policy heard, with the support of representative Unions and Associations.
Article 21 enshrines right to life and personal liberty and it is one Article that has received the widest possible interpretation. One of its interpretations is the right to livelihood. The 3 farm bills in question are being criticised for severely affecting the livelihood of small farmers in the long run when they will not be eventually able to compete with wealthy farmers who will find their market in private players and will be forced to give up their choice of livelihood and their land, to bigger farmers.
Directive Principles of State Policy
Apart from the fundamental rights, the Constitution also includes Directive Principles of State Policy (DPSP) which are considered to be supplementary to fundamental rights and ones that embody the concept of a welfare state. They are not enforceable and neither can a law be declared ultra vires of the Constitution if it is in contravention to DPSP. But, a law enacted to give effect to any of the DPSP is to be upheld as far as possible. Some Directive Principles that can be applicable to farmers rights and the current state of affairs are mentioned hereunder:
38. (2) The State shall, in particular, strive to minimise the inequalities in income, and endeavour to eliminate inequalities in status, facilities and opportunities, not only amongst individuals but also amongst groups of people residing in different areas or engaged in different vocations.
39. The State shall, in particular, direct its policy towards securing— (c) that the operation of the economic system does not result in the concentration of wealth and means of production to the common detriment;
43. The State shall endeavour to secure, by suitable legislation or economic organisation or in any other way, to all workers, agricultural, industrial or otherwise, work, a living wage, conditions of work ensuring a decent standard of life and full enjoyment of leisure and social and cultural opportunities
Additionally, there is also Article 51(c) which states that the State shall endeavour to foster respect for international law and treaty obligations in the dealings of organized peoples with one another. International treaties and conventions do not automatically become part of national law but courts generally interpret statutes so as to maintain harmony with international laws and conventions. In this case, the 3 laws need to conform to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Area of 2018 which has been passed as a Resolution by the Human Rights Council of which India is a member too.
Thus, by way of interpretation of various provisions of the Constitution, farmers rights can be brought to the fore and be made a part of the narrative, if the legislature is willing to do so.
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