India court bars PM Modi from executing laws that have led to protests by farmers

Farmers beginning their march  in Amritsar on Jan 12, 2021, to take part in a protest against the new agriculture laws.
Farmers beginning their march in Amritsar on Jan 12, 2021, to take part in a protest against the new agriculture laws.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

NEW DELHI (BLOOMBERG) - India's Supreme Court put on hold the implementation of three controversial farm laws, a setback for Prime Minister Narendra Modi's administration.

A three-judge bench headed by Chief Justice of India Sharad A. Bobde also 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. The judges said they will resume hearing on Monday (Jan 11). The lawyer for one of the big farmer groups, Mr Dushyant Dave, did not join the hearing on Tuesday.

The order, an attempt to find a way out of the stalemate between the government and protesters, comes a day after Justice Bobde said the court was "extremely disappointed at the way the government has handled all this".

Several 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 will hold discussions with both parties. This committee will submit a report to the court in two months from the first meeting, which is due to be held in 10 days, the court said.

To soothe fear among protesters, the court ruled that the existing system of government setting a minimum floor price for procurement of certain farm produce will continue and no farmer will be deprived of their land using the new laws. The court said the farmers' right to protest cannot be stifled even as it urged protesters to return to their livelihood.

The agitating farmers were not happy with the judgment but said they are awaiting a copy of the court's order before deciding on their future course of action. They had given a call to march to the capital city on Jan 26. The court on Tuesday also agreed to hear the government's petition to stop that rally.

"We don't agree with the committee that has been formed," said Mr Darshan Pal, a farm leader with the Samyukta Kisan Morcha. "We are clear about our demand that the laws must not just be suspended, they should be repealed. Suspending these laws is the right thing to do but our demand that they be repealed altogether remains firm."

The government maintains that the farmers are being misled and the new laws that lift curbs on who can purchase agricultural produce will remove middlemen and increase farmers' income. Mr Modi had in his first term promised to double farmers' incomes by 2022.

Protesting farmers, opposition parties and some of Mr Modi's allies fear that private companies might replace existing middlemen and the absence of guaranteed government-set minimum price will force them to make distress sales.

Appearing for a group of farmers, lawyer Dave on Monday told the court that more than 400 unions from across the country and over 100,000 people were participating in the protests. "It is a question of farmers' existence," he said.