India’s parliament withdraws three controversial farm laws just like it passed them—without debate

What debate?
What debate?
Image: REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis
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The Indian parliament today (Nov. 29) passed a bill to withdraw three farm laws that had over the past year kicked up a huge storm. And the repeal happened in the same manner as their introduction: bulldozed through without debate.

What is worrying is that the media, which may have given a clearer picture of what transpired in both Houses, has been kept out of parliament, apparently due to pandemic protocol.

The farm laws repeal bill was passed within four minutes of being tabled in the Lok Sabha. It was tabled at 12:06 pm and passed by 12:10 pm, while the opposition demanded a discussion, NDTV reported.

It then went to the Rajya Sabha, where it got through in a similar manner.

Such haste on the Narendra Modi government’s part was immediately perceived as its unwillingness to consider either the circumstances that precipitated the withdrawal or the remaining demands of protesting farmers.

The farm laws and the farmer furore they sparked

The three laws were passed by the Indian parliament in September 2020. They were cleared by a voice vote despite strong protests by the opposition parties. The demand for a parliamentary committee to first discuss them was ignored.

Given the lack of political consensus in the country over the issues they dealt with, the laws almost immediately sparked an upheaval among farmers, especially in the states of Punjab, Haryana, and Uttar Pradesh. The protesters saw in the laws a threat to their financial safety net.

Following a year-long deadlock and thousands of farmers parking themselves along the borders of Delhi, the government blinked. In a televised address to the nation on Nov. 19, prime minister Modi declared that the laws will be withdrawn.

Worries over parliament’s functioning and democracy

The Modi government has often been accused of turning India’s parliament into a mere rubber stamp. This comes from a tendency to use its brute majority—334 of the 540-odd elected parliamentarians belong to the country’s ruling coalition—to pass laws.

It has a less-than-firm grip on the Rajya Sabha, whose members are not directly elected by citizens. Yet, in August this year, the House passed a bill privatising public sector general insurance companies—without a debate—by a voice vote, again in spite of howls of protest.

In fact, 12 opposition MPs were today suspended for the entire winter session, which began today, for having willingly committed “unprecedented acts of misconduct, contemptuous, violent and unruly behaviour and intentional attacks on the security personnel” during the last one.

The practice of sending bills, particularly the potentially controversial ones, to the various committees of parliament to iron out the creases is increasingly being avoided.

PRS Legislative Research, a New Delhi-based non-profit organisation that monitors the Indian legislative process, looking to improve and make it more transparent, has shown that only 12% of all bills passed by this parliament, elected in 2019, were referred to various such panels. The figure was 60% in the 2004-2009 Lok Sabha.

In recent months, citing covid-19, the media has not been allowed to report on the functioning of parliament either.

The Press Club of India has called this move “blatant censorship.”