Last week, when the finance Bill was introduced in the Lok Sabha, all that we saw was UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath speaking in the House. Even the micro-blogging site, Twitter, where even a ripple is capable of creating a storm, was silent. Yes, there were some discussions on news channels that revolved around the validity of Aadhar.
We heard that our PAN card would no longer be valid unless we link it to this controversial but unique identity card before July 1, 2017. Nonetheless, not many could understand why this sudden discussion relating to Aadhar about which the apex court had ruled that it would not be made mandatory.
From Romeo squad to the closure of illegal slaughter houses, the media could not think beyond painting Yogi as the new avatar. Perhaps, they were not concerned about the parliamentary business. On a different note, was Yogi’s appearance in the Lok Sabha used to divert the media’s attention from something more pertinent to an entirely irrelevant subject?
True, Yogi did not utter a single word about the finance Bill. Yet, his speech was portrayed as a "breaking news".
Little did the media realise that the Bill that could change the destiny of a billion and more people, was not even circulated amongst the members, let alone discussed or debated. Meanwhile, finance minister Arun Jaitely exploited the freedom given to a member for requesting suspension of some rules for the functioning of the Lok Sabha.
Rule 388 says that with the consent of the Speaker, any member can move for suspension of a certain rule for a particular motion.
Lo and behold, Madam Speaker was generous enough to suspend Rule 80 that governs the admissibility of amendments to clauses or schedules of a particular Bill. It says amendments should be “within the scope of the Bill and relevant to the subject matter of the clause to which it relates”.
Since the rule was suspended, Jaitley was given the freedom to propose as many amendments as he wanted, to the finance Bill, at the eleventh hour. In a 31-page document, he proposed 40 amendments to 27 different laws, ranging from the Companies Act, 2013 to the Customs Act to the Competition Act to the Employee Provident Fund Act to the TRAI Act to the Control of National Highway Act and so on. The members had not even seen the document.
The fact that Jaitley requested for suspension of Rule 80 proves that he knew that he could not present these amendments as money Bill during the normal course of business. Out of these 27 laws, 25 were on matters entirely irrelevant to taxation or revenue of the government.
The idea was to bring changes in these Acts as per the whims and fancies of the government by avoiding any discussion in the Rajya Sabha, where the ruling party does not enjoy majority. Since it is a money Bill, the changes recommended by the Upper House can be easily rejected by the Lok Sabha and the Bill sent to the President for his assent.
That is the vision of our government, which has been propagating “ sabka sath sabka vikas”. Now let’s see whose “ vikas” the government actually intended to achieve through these massive changes in the finance Bill?
One of the amendments proposes to merge eight different tribunals under different Acts into the existing ones. For instance, the Employees Provident Fund Appellate Tribunal is proposed to be merged into the Industrial Tribunal and the Cyber Appellate Tribunal into the Telecom Dispute Settlement and Appellate Tribunal.
A few mergers like that of the Copyright Board with the Intellectual Property Appellate Board seem to be justifiable. However, the merger of the Competitive Appellate Tribunal formed under the Competition Act into the National Company Law Appellate Tribunal under the Companies Act was entirely unwarranted. In fact, most of the mergers defy logic.
Also, the amendments have empowered the Centre to make rules for qualification, appointment and removal of judges of these Tribunals, directly affecting their independence. The law has kept the executive different from the judiciary to avoid any political influences for decision of cases and conflict of interest in case the government itself is a party to a particular case. But after the amendments, the government will have direct influence over certain cases.
This is contrary to what the Supreme Court held in 2014 that appellate tribunals are vested with the powers of the High Court while deciding a particular case and hence matters relating to appointment of judges of these tribunals, their reappointment and tenure must be independent from the executive. Incidentally, the government is likely to be a party in many cases, like those related to income tax, customs, railways etc.
Till now, these were regulated under specific provisions of different Acts and the tribunals were formed to adjudicate upon certain matters arising out of those Acts only. The amendments also state that the government has the power to include many other tribunals later on, merely by publishing a notification, without needing Parliamentary approval.
In other words, the government can amend any Act without discussion and debate in Parliament. Later on, the government may club any provision relating to an Act as ancillary and incidental to governance of Tribunals in view of Jaitley's interpretation of the money Bill.
Not only this, the amended finance Bill has also removed the capping of political donations for companies. Earlier, a company could donate a maximum of 7.5 per cent of its average net profit over a period of last three years. Also, it allows funding to political parties through electoral bonds, which will help in keeping the donor anonymous. The government, which has been instrumental on cracking down on NGOs for accepting foreign donations and their compliance under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act has allowed foreign donations to political parties without any difficulty and also ensuring the anonymity of the donor!
Of the several changes, the amendment to Section 132 of the Income Tax Act empowers the inspecting officers with unquestionable powers to raid any premises. The taxman need not even explain before any appellate tribunal why a particular raid was conducted. Worse, the section can be applied with retrospective effect from 1962 onwards.
The income tax authorities can confiscate and attach any property they wish to during the raid simply by giving a written explanation -- he is “satisfied that for the purpose of protecting the interest of revenue, it is necessary".Anyone can come to your house by giving a statement and threaten you to confiscate your property on the pretext of “protecting the interest of revenue”. What a masterstroke Jaitleji!
Over 175 members of the Rajya Sabha gave a written representation to Vice-President and Rajya Sabha Chairman Hamid Ansari criticising the government’s move to classify non-financial Bills as money Bill. The statement said that “We, therefore, appeal to you to, at the very least, allow extensive and un-interrupted discussions into every aspect of the Bill No. 12-C of 2017 in the Upper House and put all these on record and do everything else in your power to ensure that the practice of by-passing important Bills by illegitimately classifying them as Money Bills is immediately stopped”.
The Bill came up for discussion and five amendments -- two to check the unbridled powers given to income tax officers, two for political funding through companies and one for donations to charitable institutions -- were recommended. Most likely, these recommendations are likely to be rejected by the Lok Sabha and the Bill will be sent for President’s assent by the time this column is published. This is what the Constitution allows in the case of money Bills.
The government has set a new trend by legalising matters through illegitimate means. Till now, India has functioned like a democracy with reasonable checks on the power that the government can enjoy or exercise, despite being elected by the people. The tactics adopted by the Modi government has undermined several democratic institutions of the country, giving way to maximum government, minimum governance against the much-touted “minimum government, maximum governance”.
(The writer, a company secretary, is director, communications, Deepalaya, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)(Published on 03rd April 2017, Volume XXIX, Issue 14)#