Decoded: What Punjab Assembly intends by bringing its own farm Bills

Protesting farmers in Punjab | Photo: PTI
The Punjab State Assembly yesterday passed three Bills that seek to limit the power and scope of the Centre’s farm laws, which were enacted last month. Punjab’s farm amendment Bills also intend to ensure that farmers are not compelled to sell wheat and paddy below the minimum support price (MSP) in the state. Here’s a look at what the Punjab government has done and how it has interpreted its role and powers.

What are the three new Bills that Punjab has cleared?

The three Bills are: The Farmers Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) (Special Provisions and Punjab Amendment Bill) 2020; The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services (Special Provisions and Punjab Amendment) Bill 2020; and The Essential Commodities (Special Provisions and Punjab Amendment) Bill 2020. A fourth Bill has also been passed that prohibits any recovery of land up to 2.5 acre. The names of the first three Punjab Bills are identical to the Central legislations but for the words, “Special Provisions and Punjab Amendment”, that have been inserted.

What changes has Punjab made to the Centre’s farm legislations?

While Punjab hasn’t outrightly rejected the Central legislations, it has amended specific clauses in them and added new provisions to suit its requirements.

So, in Section 1 of the Central Trade Act, Punjab has introduced an amendment that states the Act will come into force on the date the state government notifies it through an official gazette.

The second change is that no sale of wheat and paddy shall be valid unless the price paid is equal to or greater than the MSP fixed by the Central government. This means that in Punjab, wheat and paddy cannot be bought below the MSP. While this gives some sort of legal guarantee for securing the MSP, it will apply to only wheat and paddy.

Similarly, the state has tweaked Section 3 of the Essential Commodities Act to say that the state of Punjab will also have the power to order, provide for regulating or prohibiting the production, supply and distribution of crops, and to impose stock limits under extraordinary circumstances. This means that not just the Centre, the state of Punjab will also have the power to impose stock limits on food items.

In what way has Punjab tried to ensure the supremacy of its Bills over the Central Acts?

In all the three Bills, a Punjab-specific clause has been inserted, which states that notwithstanding any judgement, decree or order of any Court or any other instrument or any other law, which is inconsistent therewith, status quo as on June 4, 2020 shall be maintained according to the provisions of the Punjab Agricultural Produce Markets Act, 1961.

The Central Acts were first introduced in the form of Ordinances on June 5, 2020.  Punjab has also introduced a clause that gives it the powers to levy fee on any corporate trader or electronic trading platform in the area outside the mandis (designated as “trade area” in the Central legislation). Plus there are other clauses as well that hint towards that.

What has been Punjab’s argument in favour of passing these Bills?

According to the statement of objectives presented in the state Assembly while passing these Bills, the Punjab government contented that it was well within its rights to pass the Acts as agriculture, agriculture markets and land is a primary legislative domain of the state and falls under Entries 14, 18 and 28 of List-2 of the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution of India. And that “production, supply and distribution of goods” is also a state subject under Entry 27 of List 2 read with Entry 33 of List-3 of the Seventh Schedule of the Indian Constitution.

Do these Bills contradict the Central legislations? And what happens next?

Constitutional experts say until the governor and then the president of India give their ascent to these Bills, the Central legislations will prevail.

They argue that these Bills are “ultra-vires” as the state does not have the power to alter or modify any Central legislation framed under the Concurrent List. The Bills, however, have the potential to create a legal tangle and could become an instrument of political struggle in the time to come. The Centre is studying Punjab’s farm legislations, said Union Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar in an interview.

Are other states also planning to bring in similar legislations?

Yes. Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot has tweeted that his state will follow suit. And there are reports that Congress-ruled Chhattisgarh is also planning to do so.

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