With the inception of ‘Farm Laws’ – ‘The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020’, ‘The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020’, and the amended ‘The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020’, there has been a large hue and cry in North India, parting a substantial section of the farmers disquieted of several provisions of the statutes. The protesting farmers and the incumbent government have failed to bring any consensus to the negotiations leaving thousands of farmers stationed at the borders of the National Capital. These protests were defaced by the dread of the spread of coronavirus and blockades on the expressways which prompted petitions being filed before the Supreme Court to stop the agitation. Trusting both the parties to negotiate in good faith, the Supreme Court stayed the implementation of the three controversial farm laws and appointed a panel that would address the grievances of the farmers.
II. The Stakeholders, Positions & Interests
The primary stakeholders in this dispute are the farmers, who are directly impacted by the enactment of the farm laws. A vast majority of these agitating farmers are from Haryana and Punjab as they are the largest beneficiaries of the government’s minimum support price (MSP) system. With the political parties and Farmers’ Unions voicing their concerns for the farmers, the dispute is no longer just between the Government and the farmers, but involves active participation from politicians. Concerns have also been raised that the protest is no longer led by small farmers and has been taken over by middlemen who are the worst affected by these laws.
The farmer unions since the outset had demanded an absolute rollback of the laws and hence lost no time in repudiating the amendments proposed by the Union government to the current farm laws. The farmers are apprehensive that the creation of Private Mandis will put an end to the APMC system and they will be left vulnerable in the hands of corporate forces and private traders who will start procuring farm produce at incidental prices. The farmers also fear that the ‘Contract Farming’ clause will enable their land to be grabbed by large corporations pushing them into debt trap. Small and marginal farmers, who perhaps have no alternatives to stubble burning, are apprehensive of the stringent punishments. Hence, the four main demands of the farmers are a complete rollback of the laws; making MSP and state procurement of crops a legal right; continuance of subsidised power to farmers for agricultural use; and exclusion of farmers from the Delhi Anti-Pollution Ordinance, which proposed penalties up to ₹1 crore.
Presently, the laws enacted by the government are diametrically opposite to that of the demands of the farmers. While the government proposes to eradicate the role of intermediaries, giving farmers the freedom to sell their produce independently, the farmers believe it may do more harm than good. Despite the government suspending the enactment of the three contentious farm laws for 18 months, farmers are sceptical about it and find it a mere tactic to stop the protests, and not a sincere promise to look into the effect of the laws on them. The farmers are also not convinced with a written assurance for the continuation of the MSP system and demanded a comprehensive Act on MSP, because a written assurance has no legal value. During the negotiations, the Centre acquiesced to the demand of continuing the current mechanism of providing subsidised power for agricultural use, which was one of the most important demands of the farmers. However, other aspects of the talks have mostly resulted in a deadlock, with the farmers blaming the Government’s unwillingness to consider repealing the laws, and the Government blaming the farmers’ rigid stance on the repeal of the laws.
III. Resolution through mediation
In a mediation procedure, a neutral intermediary, the mediator, helps the parties to reach a mutually acceptable settlement of their dispute. Any settlement is recorded in an enforceable contract. The Centre believes that the laws are beneficial to the farmers, they have also tried to assuage the farmers by providing them a written assurance of MSP and staying the laws. However, there is a visible communication gap in conveying the benefits of the Acts to the farmers. Even the Supreme Court had commented on the inability of the Centre to effectively handle the negotiations. Therefore, for the Mediation to be successful, the Centre must effectively convey how it thinks the laws are going to be beneficial to the farmer.
A conspicuous issue in mediation concerns the mediator’s lack of bias, especially with regards to the self-assurance of the contesting parties. In its most summed up structure, lack of bias might be characterized as the nonattendance of any inclination comparable to either questioning, gathering, and the go between usage of his situation to fittingly adjust the circulation of intensity between the gatherings. Neutrality may likewise be characterized by reference to what it accomplishes – most unmistakably reasonableness. When the Supreme Court appointed the members of the Mediation Panel, farmers were apprehensive about the neutrality of the members of the committee. While some Farmers’ Unions had agreed to participate with the Mediation, others had outrightly rejected it because they believed it to be pro-government. Hence, the Supreme Court had to intervene and clarify that the Committee’s role is merely to hear the grievances of the parties impacted by the impugned legislation and make a report to the Court and that the Committee hadn’t been conferred adjudicatory powers. However, when parties are convinced that the Mediators are already in favour of the other side, they are unlikely to trust the process and go through with it. Furthermore, while the appointed members are experts on the subject matter of the laws in question, they are not Mediators. Hence, it was necessary to appoint people who are experienced with mediating such disputes and have the trust of both parties.
Mediation is a voluntary, party-driven process. This means that unless the parties themselves wish to reach a settlement, it is unlikely to be fruitful. There is a lack of commitment to resolving the matter from both sides. Since the farmers were not the ones to approach the Court, they do not want to reach a middle ground. Their demands are for a complete repeal of the laws. On the other hand, while the Centre had expressed its willingness to amend certain aspects of the laws, it is unwilling to consider the repeal of the laws. Therefore, it seems unlikely that Mediation can yield results especially after the failure of eleven rounds of talks and negotiations because both parties are negotiating over positions and not their interests. Both parties also seem to overlook the risk of losing it all in the court proceedings. This would mean that Mediation is bound to fail as they are oblivious to the risks of litigation. The attitudes of parties when their demands are at repelling focal points are crucial to mediation. A lack of a reconciliatory approach is nothing short of a death knell.
On March 19th, the Supreme Court appointed a committee to study the farm laws in detail and talk to all the stakeholders. The committee had also sought suggestions, views and comments of the public through a public notice published in major newspapers and holding meetings with Farmers’ Unions, State Governments, Procurement Agencies, Professionals and Academicians, etc. As of now, the protests by the farmers, especially the ones on the borders of Delhi, are cascading, and they are not willing to settle for anything less than a repeal of the three farm laws.
It is certainly laudable that Courts are now preferring Alternative Dispute Mechanisms over litigation, however, disputes such as the Ramjanmabhoomi – Babri Masjid title dispute have been a testament to the fact that when two different ideologies and various political parties are involved, disputes seldom get resolved without a judicial verdict. Even if negotiations reach an impasse, if both sides agree to listen to the other and show a willingness and intent to settle the dispute, they can be resolved with the help of Mediation. However, the willingness to compromise on certain agenda points, or the mentality that ‘you lose some to get some’ has been absent since the very beginning of dispute resolution. After having discussed the benefits and challenges of mediation, it certainly could be the chosen method for dispute resolution in this given matter.
– By : Yuvraj Mathur (Rajiv Gandhi National University of Law)