The central government recently introduced significant agricultural market reforms through three ordinances: the Essential Products Ordinance 2020 (Amendment), the Agricultural Trade and Commerce Ordinance 2020 (Promotion and facilitation) and Farmer Agreement (Empowerment and Protection) on Price Assurance and Agricultural Services Ordinance 2020
Since the entry into force of the Indian constitution on January 26, 1950, these three interrelated ordinances constitute the most concerted entry of the Center into the field of agriculture, designated as a State subject in the constitution.
The various constitutional amendments made after 1950 contributed to an ongoing process of invasion by the Center, but the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Ordinance 2020 takes this process to a larger scale and is certainly the attack on it. most devastating to date against federal agricultural rights. . The slogan “One India, One Agricultural Market” is an open statement of the centralizing purpose of these reforms.
The Seventh Schedule to the Indian Constitution has three lists. List I refers to subjects falling under the Center or the Union, List II refers to the list of States and List III refers to the concurrent list where States and the Center share power and responsibility.
Entry 14 of the national list mentions the item relating to agriculture: “Agriculture, including agricultural education and research, protection against pests and prevention of plant diseases”. If we were to deduce from this that agriculture is a state subject under the constitution, that would be formally correct. However, certain other provisions of the constitution in the Union list and in the concurrent list provided legal justifications for central interventions in the field of agriculture.
In general, national objectives and imperatives are invoked to use these Union provisions and competing lists. In some cases, the Centre’s intrusions into agriculture have been made even without any constitutional sanction. States can be constitutionally deprived of all powers, including in the agricultural field, by virtue of certain provisions mentioned in part XI of the constitution, dealing with “Relations between the Union and the States”.
By virtue of Article 248 of Part XI, the Center has the supplementary powers of the legislation relating to any element which is not mentioned in any of the three lists. Under Article 249, the central parliament has the power to legislate on any subject, even in the state list, if the Center deems it necessary “in the national interest”.
There is no similar provision in the constitution of another country that has a federal structure. Even the law of 1935 during British rule in India, the format of which was used as the basis for the drafting of the constitution of independent India, did not contain a clause conferring such powers on the Center.
Entry 33 in the concurrent list limits state power over agriculture and empowers the Center by stating that state and Union government can legislate on production, trade, supply and distribution of a range of foodstuffs and agricultural raw materials.
The Sarkaria Commission on Center-State Relations pointed out that the Center had used entry 33 of the competing list to enact the 1955 Essential Goods Act. This law had given the Center disproportionate powers in the management of agriculture, and it was the 2020 amendment to this law that was adopted to further increase the powers of the Center in the agricultural sector.
Entry 34 of the competing list again mentions “price control” thus giving the possibility of an entry of the Center into agriculture and an invasion of state powers. The government of Tamil Nadu had recognized that entries 33 and 34 on the competing list had a negative impact on state autonomy in agriculture and in its memorandum to the commission Sarkaria had demanded that entries 33 and 34 are transferred from the concurrent list to the list of states.
The West Bengal Left Front government led by Jyoti Basu went even further by requiring in its memorandum that not only existing entries in the competing list but also those on the Union list that restrict the jurisdiction of states in matters of agriculture be abolished, and that “Agriculture, including animal husbandry, forestry and fishing, must be exclusively the business of the States … The recent trend, with the progressive encroachment of the Center in the field of agriculture, must be reversed ”.
What is happening now with the 2020 amendment to the Essential Commodities Act 1955 is not only contrary to what Tamil Nadu and West Bengal rightly demanded, but, in fact, further increases the power of the Center by compared to what existed before this amendment.
The way the Amendment is implemented through ordinances is also extraordinary. Indira Gandhi had used the Emergency (1975-1977) to make nefarious amendments that limited the power of states in education and forestry. This government is using the health emergency caused by COVID-19 to pass this amendment through ordinances to do devastating damage to state powers over agriculture.
The most brazen form of the scale of the attacks that the Agricultural Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Ordinance 2020 implies on the already limited autonomy currently available to states can be assessed from these words :
“The central government may, for the execution of the provisions of this ordinance, give the instructions, directives, orders or issue directives that it deems necessary to any authority or official subordinate to the central government, to any state government or to to any authority or official subordinate to a state government ”.
This is one of the most serious warnings about the emasculation of federal powers from states.
The attack of this ordinance on the limited financial resources of the states is also clear in the provision that “no market duty, tax or levy” can be collected by a state law on the APMC (committee of the market of agricultural products) or any other state law. After depriving states of the revenue they previously earned from sales tax by replacing it with the centrally controlled GST, this is yet another attack aimed at financially weakening states and making them more dependent. of the Center.
The weakening of state autonomy cannot be more glaring than what is stated in the Agreement on Price Insurance and Agricultural Services, 2020:
“The central government may from time to time give such instructions as it deems necessary to the state governments for the effective implementation of the provisions of this Act, and the state governments shall comply with such instructions. “
Protecting agriculture as a subject of state in Indian federalism would be a key economic, political, social and cultural battle in the years to come.
Pritam Singh is a visiting scholar at Wolfson College, University of Oxford, and author of Federalism, nationalism and development.