Sunday, October 17, 2021

1.3 Lakh farmers are consulted through webinars! And 2.23 crore contacted by SMS!!

If what is claimed by Union Law Minister is true, all our farmers are tech-savvy, rich enough to connect by smart phones or laptops and can be consulted on webinars and express their opinion through SMS. Pre-legislative consultation is a pre-requisite for any new enactment especially affecting the large section of the people like farmers. Whether the Centre consulted any farmers, or corporates or businessmen before removing the relevance of agriculture market committees?  The Supreme Court also questioned the government for passing the Farm Laws without sufficient consultation during the hearings on January 11. In reply through 45- page affidavit showed hardening of its stand against withdrawing the laws and contained an assertion that these laws took shape after two decades of intense deliberations and consultations with stakeholders.

1,37 lakh webinars and 2.2 Crore SMS

Earlier, Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad claimed “extensive consultations, trainings and outreach programmes (were) conducted on the Agriculture Laws with stakeholders”. He mentioned that “1.37 lakh webinars and trainings” had been held since June and 92.42 lakh farmers had participated.

News18.com quoting unnamed officials reported that the PM spoke about farm reforms more than 25 times in Mann Ki Baat and from Red Fort. News18 further claimed that ‘the Ministry was consulting with various experts, progressive farmers, mandi officials and former officials and got feedback…. There were multiple meetings with FPOs through video conferences…. The Ministry also consulted a prominent Farmers union and even did a change in the ordinance after their feedback…The Minister for Agriculture had multiple meetings with state agriculture ministers, various farmer groups, political groups, aadhatiya groups and industry groups and participated in workshops organised by Krishi Vigyan Kendras”. News18 gave further details: “…. the total number of training and webinar sessions conducted were 1,37,054 reaching out to 92,42,376 farmers between June to November 2020.Further, farmers were called for training at a common place in the Gram Panchayat. Moreover, 2.23 crore SMS messages have been sent to farmers during the month of October.The Central government also reached out to farmers at the grassroots and conducted webinars and training sessions apart from making farmers aware about the reforms though SMS”.In June, 708 trainings and webinars were organised covering 21,231 farmers, the News18 addeed. In July, total 873 trainings and webinars were conducted reaching out to 26,196 farmers. In the months of August and September, total 852 and 840 training and webinar sessions conducted respectively covering 25,569 and 25,205 farmers. Total 36,102 training and webinar sessions covering 27,07,977 farmers were conducted in the month of October 2020. November 2020 witnessed 97,679 such sessions covering 64,36,198 farmers.

All these interactions on webinars and with SMS happened after June, i.e., after ordinances were promulgated. It cannot be said that they were consultations on promulgated ordinances. If there are any suggestions, they should have incorporated in the draft Bills to replace ordinancs.

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Except News18 report and Law Minister’s claim over twitter video, no where these ‘facts’ were officially mentioned? If majority farmers have agreed to reforms, why there is none from Punjab and Haryana? Why they came on roads risking his life in chilling cold of Delhi facing the water cannons of most humane government. According to these claims of Law Minister, all our farmers are technologically rich, as they can receive crores of SMS from Government in their smart phones give their opinions through webinars via their laptops and desk-tops with wonderful bandwidth and continuous power supply. Nowhere in the Bills, the Government referred to any consultation, or claimed that some suggestions were incorporated.

No to RTI

Then why the public authorities were denying any information under RTI about these extensive consultations. Why they were relying on wrongful pretexts. The Ordinances for farm ‘reforms’ were promulgated in June. Most of the claims of the Ministry are about consultation after June. The futility of their claim was obvious as it has considered talk in Bihar election rallies as ‘consultation’. The Law Ministry do not hesitate to say that most of the consultation happened through video conferences and webinars, which was the technology used in covid times only. Their official claims alone prove that there was no consultation before Ordinances. It is ridiculous to claim that crores of sms sent as consultation.

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No information

An RTI activist Anjali Bhardwaj asked on December 11, for specific details regarding the stakeholder consultations supposed to have been held before the Centre promulgated the three ordinances on agricultural reforms in June. Within the 30-days, two Central Public Information Officers (CPIOs) in the agricultural marketing divisions of the Ministry responded and claimed that they did not have any record of such consultations. If the Agriculture Department had really consulted any it should have the documents about it. If any other public authority might have consulted for Agriculture department, the ministry should have transferred the RTI request to that public authority.

Also Read : Failure of the Apex court’s Committee

Very interestingly, the CPIO gave a second response to Anjali Bharadwaj on January 13 “….. the information being sought for has been challenged in various Hon’ble High Courts as well as Hon’ble Supreme Court of India. As such being a sub judice matter it may not be feasible at this moment to provide information under Section 8(1)(b) of RTI Act, 2005.” The CPIO added that the delay in providing a reply was due to the COVID-19 situation. Ms. Bhardwaj has appealed on the ground that the law does not allow for exemption merely on the grounds that a matter is sub judice.

As per law the CPIO can avail the benefit of 8(1)(b) only if he shows that the court had forbidden the disclosure of the information, because the sub-judice is no defence. Similar RTI request from NDTV also got same response.

Prof. M. Sridhar Acharyulu
Author is Dean, Professor of law at Mahindra University at Hyderabad and former Central Information Commissioner. He published a number books in English and Telugu.

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