A few minutes ago, the Supreme Court delivered a judgement striking down Section 66 A of the Information Technology Act, 2000. This was in response to a PIL that challenged the constitutionality of this provision. In light of this, we present a background to Section 66 A and the recent developments leading up to its challenge before the Court. What does the Information Technology Act, 2000 provide for? The Information Technology (IT) Act, 2000 provides for legal recognition for transactions through electronic communication, also known as e-commerce. The Act also penalizes various forms of cyber crime. The Act was amended in 2009 to insert a new section, Section 66A which was said to address cases of cyber crime with the advent of technology and the internet. What does Section 66(A) of the IT Act say? Section 66(A) of the Act criminalises the sending of offensive messages through a computer or other communication devices. Under this provision, any person who by means of a computer or communication device sends any information that is:
Over the past few years, incidents related to comments, sharing of information, or thoughts expressed by an individual to a wider audience on the internet have attracted criminal penalties under Section 66(A). This has led to discussion and debate on the ambit of the Section and its applicability to such actions. What have been the major developments in context of this Section? In the recent past, a few arrests were made under Section 66(A) on the basis of social media posts directed at notable personalities, including politicians. These were alleged to be offensive in nature. In November 2012, there were various reports of alleged misuse of the law, and the penalties imposed were said to be disproportionate to the offence. Thereafter, a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) was filed in the Supreme Court, challenging this provision on grounds of unconstitutionality. It was said to impinge upon the freedom of speech and expression guaranteed by Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution. How has the government responded so far? Subsequently, the central government issued guidelines for the purposes of Section 66(A). These guidelines clarified that prior approval of the Deputy Commissioner or Inspector General of Police was required before a police officer or police station could register a complaint under Section 66(A). In May 2013, the Supreme Court (in relation to the above PIL) also passed an order saying that such approval was necessary before any arrest is to be made. Since matters related to police and public order are dealt with by respective state governments, a Supreme Court order was required for these guidelines to be applicable across the country. However, no changes have been made to Section 66 A itself. Has there been any legislative movement with regard to Section 66(A)? A Private Member Bill was introduced in Lok Sabha in 2013 to amend Section 66(A) of the IT Act. The Statement of Objects and Reasons of the Bill stated that most of the offences that Section 66(A) dealt with were already covered by the Indian Penal Code (IPC), 1860. This had resulted in dual penalties for the same offence. According to the Bill, there were also inconsistencies between the two laws in relation to the duration of imprisonment for the same offence. The offence of threatening someone with injury through email attracts imprisonment of two years under the IPC and three years under the IT Act. The Bill was eventually withdrawn. In the same year, a Private Members resolution was also moved in Parliament. The resolution proposed to make four changes: (i) bring Section 66(A) in line with the Fundamental Rights of the Constitution; (ii) restrict the application of the provision to communication between two persons; (iii) precisely define the offence covered; and (iv) reduce the penalty and make the offence a non-cognizable one (which means no arrest could be made without a court order). However, the resolution was also withdrawn. Meanwhile, how has the PIL proceeded? According to news reports, the Supreme Court in February, 2015 had stated that the constitutional validity of the provision would be tested, in relation to the PIL before it. The government argued that they were open to amend/change the provision as the intention was not to suppress freedom of speech and expression, but only deal with cyber crime. The issues being examined by the Court relate to the powers of the police to decide what is abusive, causes annoyance, etc,. instead of the examination of the offence by the judiciary . This is pertinent because this offence is a cognizable one, attracting a penalty of at least three years imprisonment. The law is also said to be ambiguous on the issue of what would constitute information that is “grossly offensive,” as no guidelines have been provided for the same. This lack of clarity could lead to increased litigation. The judgement is not available in the public domain yet. It remains to be seen on what the reasoning of the Supreme Court was, in its decision to strike down Section 66A, today.
Need for Urban Co-operative Banks
The history of UCBs in India can be traced to the 19th century when such societies were set up drawing inspiration from the success of the co-operative movement in Britain and the co-operative credit movement in Germany. Urban co-operative credit societies, were organised on a community basis to meet the consumption-oriented credit needs of their members. UCBs are primary cooperative banks in urban and semi-urban areas. They are co-operative societies that undertake banking business. Co-operative banks accept deposits from the public and lend to their members. Co-operative banks are different from other co-operatives as they mobilise resources for lending and investment from the wider public rather than only their members.
Concerns regarding the professionalism of urban cooperative banks gave rise to the view that they should be better regulated. Large cooperative banks with paid-up share capital and reserves of one lakh rupees were brought under the scope of the Banking Regulation Act, 1949 with effect from March 1, 1966. Prior to this, such banks were regulated under the scope of state-specific cooperative laws. The revised framework brought them under the ambit of supervision of the RBI. Till 1996, these banks could lend money only for non-agricultural purposes. However, this distinction does not apply today.
The Expert Committee noted that UCBs play a key role in financial inclusion. It further observed that the focus area for UCBs has traditionally been communities and localities including workplace groups. They play an important role in the delivery of last-mile credit, even more so for those sections of the population who are not integrated into the mainstream banking framework. UCBs primarily lend to wage earners, small entrepreneurs, and businesses in urban and semi-urban areas. UCBs can be more responsive than formal banking channels to the needs of the local people.
Over the years, concerns have been raised about non-professional management in UCBs and that this can lead to weaker governance and risk management in these entities. RBI has also taken regulatory action on several UCBs. For instance, in September 2019, RBI placed Punjab and Maharashtra Co-operative Bank under restrictions on allegations of serious underreporting of non-performing assets. The bank could not grant loans, make investments or accept deposits without prior approval from RBI. While these restrictions were originally put in place for six months, the time frame was extended several times and has now been extended till December 31, 2021. In addition, low capital base, poor credit management and diversion of funds have also been issues in the sector.
Shrinking share in the banking sector
There were 1,539 UCBs in the country as of March 31, 2020, with deposits worth Rs 5,01,180 crore and advances worth Rs 3,05,370 crore. Even though 94% of the entities in the banking sector were UCBs their market share in the banking sector has been low and declining and stands at around 3%. UCBs accounted for 3.24% of the deposits and 2.69% of the advances in the banking sector. The Committee noted that state-of-the-art technology adopted by new players, such as small finance banks and fintech entities, along with commercial banks can disrupt the niche customer segment of the UCBs.
Figure 1: Growth in deposits of UCBs (in Rs crore)
Figure 2: Growth in advances of UCBs (in Rs crore)
Burden of non-performing assets
UCBs had the highest net non-performing asset (NNPA) ratio (5.26%) and gross non-performing asset (GNPA) ratio (10.96%) across the banking sector as of March 2020. These levels correspond to around twice that of private sector banks, and around five times that of small finance banks. The Committee noted that, as of March 2020, UCBs have the lowest level of net interest margin (difference between interest earned and interest spent relative to total interest generating assets held by the bank) and negative return on assets and return on equity.
Figure 3: Asset quality across banks (in percentage)
Sources: Report of the Expert Committee on Urban Co-operative Banks; PRS.
Supervisory Action Framework (SAF): SAF envisages corrective action by UCB and/or supervisory action by RBI on breach of financial thresholds related to asset quality, profitability and level of capital as measured by Capital to Risk-weighted Asset Ratio (CRAR). The Committee recommended that SAF should consider only asset quality (based on net non-performing asset ratio) and CRAR with an emphasis on reducing the time spent by a UCB under SAF. The RBI should begin the mandatory resolution process including reconstruction or compulsory merger as soon as a UCB reaches the third stage under SAF (CRAR less than 4.5% and/or net non-performing asset ratio above 12%).
Constraints in raising capital
The Committee also observed that UCBs are constrained in raising capital which restricts their ability to expand the business. According to co-operative principles, share capital is to be issued and refunded only at face value. Thus, investment in UCBs is less attractive as it does not lead to an increase in its value. Also, the principle of one member, one vote means that an interested investor cannot acquire a controlling stake in UCBs. It was earlier recommended that UCBs should be allowed to issue fresh capital at a premium based on the net worth of the entity at the end of the preceding year.
Listing of securities: The Committee recommended making suitable amendments to the Banking Regulation Act, 1949 to enable RBI to notify certain securities issued by any co-operative bank or class of co-operative banks to be covered under the Securities Contracts (Regulation) Act, 1956 and the Securities and Exchange Board of India Act, 1992. This will enable their listing and trading on a recognised stock exchange. Until such amendments are made, the Committee recommended that banks can be allowed to have a system on their websites to buy/sell securities at book value subject to the condition that the bank should ensure that the prospective buyer is eligible to be admitted as a member.
Conflict between Banking Regulation Act, 1949 and co-operative laws
The fundamental difference between banking companies and co-operative banks is in the voting rights of shareholders. In banking companies, each share has a corresponding vote. But in the case of co-operative banks, each shareholder has only one vote irrespective of the number of shares held. Despite RBI being the regulator of the banking sector, the regulation of co-operative banks by RBI was restricted to functions related directly to banking. This gave rise to dual regulation with governance, audit, and winding-up related functions regulated by state governments and central government for single-state banks and multi-state banks, respectively.
2020 Amendments to the Banking Regulation Act: In September 2020, the Banking Regulation Act, 1949 was amended to increase RBI’s powers over the regulation of co-operative banks including qualifications of management of these banks and supersession of board of directors. The Committee noted that due to the amendment of the Act, certain conflicts have arisen with various co-operative laws. For instance, the Act allows co-operative banks to issue shares at a premium, but it is silent on their redemption. It noted that if any co-operative societies’ legislation provides for redemption of shares only at par, then, while a co-operative bank incorporated under that legislation can issue shares at a premium, it can redeem them only at par.
Note that on September 3, 2021, the Madhya Pradesh High Court stayed a circular released by the RBI on appointment of managing director/whole-time director in UCBs. The circular provided for eligibility and propriety criteria for the appointment of such personnel in UCBs. The petitioner, Mahanagar Nagrik Sahakari Bank Maryadit, argued that the service conditions of the managing director and chief executive officer of co-operative banks are governed by bye-laws framed under the M.P. State Cooperative Societies Act, 1960. The petition noted that co-operative as a subject falls under the state list and hence the power to legislate in the field of co-operative societies falls under the domain of the states and not the central government.
Over the years, several committees have looked at the feasibility to set up an Umbrella Organisation (UO) for UCBs. It is an apex body of federating UCBs. In 2011, an expert committee on licensing of new UCBs recommended that there should be two separate UOs for the sector. In June 2019, RBI granted an in-principle approval to National Federation of Urban Co-operative Banks and Credit Societies Ltd to set up a UO in the form of a non-deposit taking non-banking finance company. The UO is expected to provide information technology and financial support to its federating members along with value-added services linked to treasury, foreign exchange and international remittances. It is envisaged to provide scale through network to smaller UCBs. The report of the current Committee recommended that the minimum capital of the UO should be Rs 300 crore. Once stabilised, the UO can explore the possibility of becoming a universal bank. It can also take up the role of a self-regulatory organisation for its member UCBs. The Committee also suggested that the membership of the UO can be opened-up to both financial and non-financial co-operatives who can make contributions through share capital in the UO.
Comments on the report of the Expert Committee are invited until September 30, 2021.