November 26, 2021 marked one more year of survival of the Constitution of the world’s largest democracy; with the repeal of the three contentious farm laws, we can make this a memorable week to review our commitment to the goals of the Constitution, says PRASHANT PADMANABHAN.
LIKE the Constitution of the oldest surviving democracy, the Indian Constitution also starts with the words: “We, the People ..”
Commenting on the words “We, the People,” in the US Constitution, Barbara Jordan, former US Representative famously said during her address on the impeachment of President Nixon:
“It’s a very eloquent beginning. But when that document was completed on the seventeenth of September in 1787, I was not included in that “We, the People.” I felt somehow for many years that George Washington and Alexander Hamilton just left me out by mistake. But through the process of amendment, interpretation, and court decision, I have finally been included in “We, the people.” …. My faith in the Constitution is whole; it is complete; it is total. And I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction, of the Constitution,”
Similarly, future generations of Indians are also included in “We the People”, occurring in the Indian Constitution. In his seminal book, Working a Democratic Constitution: A history of the Indian Experience, American historian of the Indian Constitution, Granville Austin rightly comments that ‘…constitutions, however ‘living’, are inert. They do not work, they are worked’. History of that working, in his words, is about ‘what human beings do ill and well while governing themselves’. (p.1)
Working India’s Constitution
If the peaceful transition of power from one party to another following a general election is a hallmark of a democratic system, then the Constitution worked both in the US and in India. Looking at the experience in our neighbourhood, we must cherish this continuation of democracy, despite incidents like those in Lakhimpur Kheri in India and the Capitol Hill siege in the US.
Our Constitution is not just written words, it is adopted by an Assembly after extensive debates ranging over a period of almost three years.
Our Constitution is not just written words, it is adopted by an Assembly after extensive debates ranging over a period of almost three years (2 years, 11 months, and 17 days). Words are breathed into it, from the ‘lived experience’ of freedom fighters, social reformers, lawyers of that generation, all of whom struggled for the idea of India.
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Another such Constitution cannot be re-enacted now, for we lack the lived experience of that generation of freedom fighters. We are, however, free to experiment within the broad parameters set by the Constitution. That is the very idea of a Constitutional Democracy.
The comments by Dr.B.R.Ambedkar, on November 25, 1949, regarding the working Constitution is always relevant.
On the 26th of January 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality. In politics we will be recognising the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man one value. … We must remove this contradiction at the earliest possible moment or else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy which is Assembly has to laboriously built up.
Minimising social and economic inequalities is the theme of the Directive Principles of State Policy under Part IV of the Constitution.
In light of such a background, let us examine one issue of paramount importance to the working of our Constitution, viz, the farm reforms. It is brought to the forefront of national attention because of the yearlong protests by our farmers, braving extreme weather conditions. The three farm laws were passed in Parliament without a detailed discussion or without reference to a Parliamentary Standing Committee, as demanded by the political Opposition. In the Rajya Sabha, Bills were passed by a voice vote despite opposition MPs asking for a division, i.e. a recorded vote. Was that a democracy in fact or only in form, as Dr. Ambedkar doubted?
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Protesters faced an administration unwilling to take back the laws, an administration which offered only conditional talks, fostered cases on protesters and threatened them – an administration which used sama, dana, bheda, danda, as a means to suppress, but which finally relented after seeing the electoral defeat and the impending mood of voters in states where elections are due. It is both a victory of democracy as well as a grim reminder of the fact that electoral dividend is perhaps the only possible deterrence against narrow political considerations.
Dr. M.S. Swaminathan Commission Report
A year ago, when farmers were asked to meet the Union Agriculture Secretary, they had two main demands – scrapping of all three farm laws and implementation of MS Swaminathan Commission report. Today, after the announcement by the Prime Minister of the withdrawal of all three farm laws, farmers are stern on their demand for Minimum Support Price based on the comprehensive cost of production.
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It may be noted that the National Commission on Farmers, under the Chairmanship of Dr. M.S. Swaminathan, in its five reports, (the first report was submitted in 2004 and the last one in 2006) had made comprehensive recommendations after extensive consultation with farmers and farmers organisations, political party leaders, Vice Chancellors of Universities of Agriculture, Animal Husbandry and Fisheries, Union and State Governments, Chief Ministers and Union Agriculture Minister, NGOs, National Academy of Agricultural Sciences, Planning Commission, and every other stakeholder.
Today, after the announcement by the Prime Minister of the withdrawal of all three farm laws, farmers are stern on their demand for Minimum Support Price based on the comprehensive cost of production.
The Commission in its fifth and final report, recorded that “India will remain during most of the 21st century a predominantly agricultural country, particularly with reference to livelihood opportunities. Therefore, there is a need for both vision and appropriate action in the area of shaping our agricultural destiny.” We should look upon agriculture not just as a food producing machine for the urban population, but as the major source of skilled and remunerative employment and as a global outsourcing hub, recorded the Commission. For saving the life of farmers, who in large numbers were committing suicides, the Commission suggested a five-point formula.
“The future of our agriculture and food security and even national sovereignty depends on our ability to increase productivity per unit of arable land and irrigation water in perpetuity without associated ecological harm, a process known as “Evergreen Revolution”,” the Commission noted.
‘Minimum Support Price’ (MSP) which is at least 50% more than the weighted average cost of production, was one of its core recommendations. The Commission suggested that the “net take home income” of farmers should be comparable to those of civil servants. The procurement price will take into account the cost escalation in inputs like diesel, since the announcement of MSP, according to the Commission.
Revolution in biotechnology
Unlike the doubts raised by many who wanted urgent reforms in the farm sector, the Swaminathan Commission report is not against modernisation. In fact, it notes that ‘biotechnology is a revolutionary and high pace technology with unprecedented opportunity.’ The Commission suggested an autonomous ‘National Biotechnology Regulatory Authority’, to deal with (i) value, usefulness and appropriateness of biotechnologies, (ii) risk and biosafety aspects and their management, (iii) equity and ethical dimensions, overall awareness and promotion of pro-poor features of biotechnologies, gene literacy, (iv) control of and access to biotechnologies, the role of public and private sectors, harmonization of various regulatory provisions, and (v) investment in research and other institutional supports and partnerships for transparent and balanced harnessing of biotechnologies.
Veteran journalist, P. Sainath, who has been covering the farmer’s suicides for decades and is the founder of People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI), has demanded that there should be a dedicated Parliament session to discuss the implementation of the M.S. Swaminathan Commission report. This is the need of the hour considering the fact that there has not been a single day’s debate since 2004, when the Commission submitted its first report. The Prime Minister, in his address on November 19, 2021, while announcing his government’s decision to repeal the three farm laws, mentioned that the government has failed to convince the farmers. As a follow up, the Government should now discuss the Swaminathan Commission Report in Parliament. The Opposition Parties have been claiming victory on the government’s decision to repeal the farm laws. They must insist and make sure that the Government takes up the Swaminathan Commission Report for discussion in Parliament and implements it without delay.
The Commission suggested that the “net take home income” of farmers should be comparable to those of civil servants.
This will help to achieve reduction in the social and economic inequality, as far as farmers are concerned and realise the Directive Principles of State Policy as well.
Even as we just celebrated one more Constitution Day, let us remind ourselves of what our first Prime Minister had said, which is quoted in the Swaminathan Commission report and which is ever relevant: “Everything else can wait, but not agriculture.”
(Prashant Padmanabhan is an advocate at the Supreme Court. The views expressed are personal.)