Late last week, the President of India assented to the controversial farm Bills that had triggered opposition and protest among farmers, political parties, State governments and civil society. The government of India claimed that these bills were intended to empower farmers and develop the political economy of agriculture in India. Many, however, vehemently disagree. A key criticism of the Bills is that they undermine the Indian Constitution’s federal scheme. In this post, we look at how the Constitution framers debated agriculture viz a viz federalism.

The Seventh Schedule of the Constitution of India 1950 contains three lists: Union, State and Concurrent. Subjects in the ‘Union’ list are the exclusive domain of the Union, subjects in the State’ list are the exclusive domain of the States and the ‘Concurrent’ list contains subjects that are the joint domain of the Union and States.

The Seventh Schedule of the Draft Constitution of India 1948, contained the following entry in the State List:

‘22. Agriculture, including agricultural education and research, protection against pests and prevention of plant diseases’.

This entry effectively placed agriculture under the purview of State legislatures and governments. On 2 October 1949, this entry was taken up for debate in the Constituent Assembly.

Brajeswar Prasad, Congress party member and civil society activist, did not want States to play the leading role in agriculture. He felt that Union power over agriculture was critical to resolving the problem of food supply and distribution. In fact, he went further and proposed that agriculture be nationalised. Interestingly, he also claimed that the Union control over agriculture was necessary to ‘challenge’ subversive movements.

Next up was veteran freedom fighter Shiban Lal Saxena who proposed an amendment to shift agriculture from the State List to the Concurrent List. He argued that if the ambitious agricultural plans that India was going to undertake had to be effective, then the role the Union was critical: only the Union had the financial and administrative capacity to coordinate national-level agricultural goals. Chaudhari Ranbir Singh seemed to agree with Prasad and specifically pointed to the locust problem. He suggested that such kind of pest problems are ‘inter-provincial’ in nature and could not be adequately responded to by individual states alone.

T.T. Krishnamachari, Drafting Committee member, was the last to intervene in the debate and defended the Drafting Committee’s decision to place agriculture under the State list. He said that agriculture in India was a ‘vast problem’ and felt that the Union’s capacity to deal with would not be as effective as many believed. Further, he said that the Drafting Committee had met with State Ministers and discussed proposals similar to those of Prasad’s and Saxena’s. In these meetings, the ministers ‘resisted further inroads into the field of provincial autonomy’. That said, Krishnamachari added that the Union could still play a part in the management of the country's agriculture by supporting State government with grants. 

The debate then came to a close and the amendments were rejected and Item 22 (later renumbered as Item 14)  remained int he State list.

What is noteworthy in this debate is the sensitivity shown by the Drafting Committee towards the concerns of the States' regarding state autonomy viz a viz agriculture at the time of constitution-making. Does this hold true of the Union legislature and government today?