These are challenging times for chit fund operators. A scam involving the Saradha group allegedly conning customers under the guise of a chit fund, has raised serious questions for the industry. With a reported 10,000 chit funds in the country handling over Rs 30,000 crore annually, chit fund proponents maintain that these funds are an important financial tool. The scam has also sparked responses from both the centre and states: the Finance Ministry, Ministry of Corporate Affairs and SEBI have all promised to act and the West Bengal Assembly has passed The West Bengal Protection of Interest of Depositors in Financial Establishments Bill, 2013, with Odisha and Haryana considering similar legislation. What is a chit fund? A chit fund is a type of saving scheme where a specified number of subscribers contribute payments in instalment over a defined period. Each subscriber is entitled to a prize amount determined by lot, auction or tender depending on the nature of the chit fund. Typically the prize amount is the entire pool of contribution minus a discount which is redistributed to subscribers as a dividend. For example, consider an auction-type chit fund with 50 subscribers contributing Rs 100 every month. The monthly pool is Rs 5,000 and this is auctioned out every month. The winning bid, say Rs 1000, would be the discount and be distributed among the subscribers. The winning bidder would then receive Rs 4,000 (Rs 5,000 – 1,000) while the rest of subscribers would receive Rs 20 (1000/50). Winners cannot enter the auction again and will be liable for the monthly subscription as the process is repeated for the duration of the scheme. The company managing the chit fund (foreman) would retain a commission from the prize amount every month. Collectively, the subscribers to a chit fund are referred to as a chit group and a chit fund company may run many such groups. What are the laws governing chit funds? Classifying them as contracts, the Supreme Court has read chit funds as being part of the Concurrent List of the Indian Constitution; hence both the centre and state can frame legislation regarding chit funds. States like Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala had enacted legislation (e.g The Kerala Chitties Act, 1975 and The Tamil Nadu Chit Funds Act, 1961) for regulating chit funds. Chit Funds Act, 1982 In 1982, the Ministry of Finance enacted the Chit Funds Act to regulate the sector. Under the Act, the central government can choose to notify the Act in different states on different dates; if the Act is notified in a state, then the state act would be repealed[i]. States are responsible for notifying rules and have the power to exempt certain chit funds from the provisions of the Act. Last year the central government, notified the Act in Arunachal Pradesh, Gujarat, Haryana, Kerala and Nagaland. Under the Act, all chit funds require previous sanction from the state government. The capital requirement for establishing chit funds is Rs 1 lakh and at least 10% of profits should be transferred to a reserve fund. The amount of discount (i.e. the bid) is capped at 40% of the total chit fund value. States may appoint a Registrar who would be responsible for regulation, inspection and dispute settlement in the sector. Any grievances over decisions made by the Registrar can be subject to appeals directed to the state government. Chit fund managers are required to deposit the entire value of the chit fund (can be done in 50% cash and 50% bank guarantee) with the Registrar for the duration of the chit cycle. Prize Chits and Money Circulation Schemes (Banning) Act, 1978 The Prize Chits and Money Circulation Schemes (Banning) Act, 1978 defines and prohibits any illegal chit fund schemes (e.g. schemes where auction winners are not liable to future payments). Again, the responsibility for enforcing the provisions of this Act lies with the state government. Reports suggest that the government is discussing amendments to this Bill in the wake of the chit fund scam. West Bengal Protection of Interest of Depositors in Financial Establishments Bill, 2013 Last month the West Bengal Assembly passed the West Bengal Protection of Interest of Depositors in Financial Establishments Bill, 2013. This was a direct response to the chit fund scam in West Bengal. While not regulating chit funds directly, the Act regulates and restricts financial establishments to curb any unscrupulous activity with regards to deposits. Chit funds are specifically included under the definition of deposits. The state government will appoint a competent authority to conduct investigations. What is the role of RBI and SEBI? The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) is the regulator for banks and other non banking financial companies (NBFCs) but does not regulate the chit fund business. While chit funds accept deposits, the term ‘deposit’ as defined under the Reserve Bank of India Act, 1934 does not include subscriptions to chits. However the RBI can provide guidance to state governments on regulatory aspects like creating rules or exempting certain chit funds. As the regulator of the securities market, SEBI regulates collective investment schemes. But the SEBI Act, 1992 specifically excludes chit funds from their definition of collective investment schemes. In the recent case with Sarada Group, the SEBI investigation discovered that Sarada were, in effect, operating a collective investment scheme without SEBI’s approval.
[i] The central act repeals the Andhra Pradesh Chit Funds Act, 1971; the Kerala Chitties Act, 1975, the Maharashtra Chit Funds Act, 1974’, the Tamil Nadu Chit Funds Act, 1961 (applicable in Chandiragh and Delhi), the Uttar Pradesh Chit Funds Act, 1975, Goa, Daman and Diu Chit Funds Act, 1973 and Pondicheery Funds Act, 1966.
The Uttarakhand Assembly concluded a two-day session on November 30, 2022. The session was scheduled to be held over five days. In this post we look at the legislative business that was carried out in the Assembly, and the state of state legislatures.
13 Bills were introduced and passed within two days
As per the Session Agenda, a total of 19 Bills were listed for introduction in the span of two days. 13 of these were listed to be discussed and passed on the second day. These included the Uttarakhand Protection of Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Bill, 2022, University of Petroleum and Energy Studies (Amendment), Bill, 2022, and the Uttarakhand Anti-Littering and Anti-Spitting (Amendment) Bill, 2022.
The Assembly had proposed to discuss and pass each Bill (barring two) within five minutes (see Figure 1). Two Bills were allocated 20 minutes each for discussion and passing - the Haridwar Universities Bill, 2022, and the Public Service (Horizontal Reservation for Women) Bill, 2022. As per news reports, the Assembly passed all 13 Bills within these two days (this excludes the Appropriation Bills). This raises the question on the amount of scrutiny that these Bills were subject to, and the quality of such laws when the legislature intends to pass them within mere minutes.
Figure 1: Excerpt of Uttarakhand Assembly's November 2022 Session Agenda
Law making requires deliberation, scrutiny
Our law-making institutions have several tools at their disposal to ensure that before a law is passed, it has been examined thoroughly on various aspects such as constitutionality, clarity, financial and technical capacity of the state to implement provisions, among others. The Ministry/Department piloting a Bill could share a draft of the Bill for public feedback (pre-legislative scrutiny). While Bills get introduced, members may raise issues on constitutionality of the proposed law. Once introduced, Bills could be sent to legislative committees for greater scrutiny. This allows legislators to deliberate upon individual provisions in depth, understand if there may be constitutional challenges or other issues with any provision. This also allows experts and affected stakeholders to weigh in on the provisions, highlight issues, and help strengthen the law.
However, when Bills are introduced and passed within mere minutes, it barely gives legislators the time to go through the provisions and mull over implications, issues, or ways to improve the law for affected parties. It also raises the question of what the intention of the legislature is when passing laws in a hurry without any discussion. Often, such poorly thought laws are also challenged in Courts.
For instance, the Uttarakhand Assembly passed the Uttarakhand Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Bill, 2022 in this session (five minutes had been allocated for the discussion and passing of the Bill). The 2022 Bill amends the 2018 Act which prohibits forceful religious conversions, and provides that conversion through allurement or marriage will be unlawful. The Bill has provisions such as requiring an additional notice to be sent to the District Magistrate (DM) for a conversion, and that reconversion to one’s immediate previous religion will not be considered a conversion. Some of these provisions seem similar to other laws that were passed by states and have been struck down by or have been challenged in Courts. For example, the Madhya Pradesh High Court while examining the Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 2021 noted that providing a notice to the DM for a conversion of religion violates the right to privacy as the right includes the right to remain silent. It extends that understanding to the right to decide on one’s faith. The Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 2006 exempted people who reconvert to their original religion from giving a public notice of such conversion. The Himachal Pradesh High Court had struck down this provision as discriminatory and violative of the right to equality. The Court also noted that the right to change one’s belief cannot be taken away for maintaining public order.
Uttarakhand MLAs may not have had an opportunity to think about how issues flagged by Courts may be addressed in a law that regulates religious conversions.
Most other state Assemblies also pass Bills without adequate scrutiny
In 2021 44% states passed Bills on the day it was introduced or on the next day. Between January 2018 and September 2022, the Gujarat Assembly introduced 92 Bills (excluding Appropriation Bills). 91 of these were passed in the same day as their introduction. In the 2022 Monsoon Session, the Goa Assembly passed 28 Bills in the span of two days. This is in addition to discussion and voting on budgetary allocation to various government departments.
Figure 2: Time taken by state legislatures to pass Bills in 2021
Note: The chart above does not include Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim. A Bill is considered passed within a day if it was passed on the day of introduction or on the next day. For states with bicameral legislatures, bills have to be passed in both Houses. This has been taken into account in the above chart for five states having Legislative Councils, except Bihar (information was not available for Council).
Sources: Assembly websites, E-Gazette of various states and Right to Information requests; PRS.
Occasionally, the time actually spent deliberating upon a Bill is lesser than the allocated time. This may be due to disruptions in the House. The Himachal Pradesh Assembly provides data on the time actually spent discussing Bills. For example, in the August 2022 Session, it spent an average of 12 minutes to discuss and pass 10 Bills. However, the Uttarakhand Assembly allocated only five minutes to discuss each Bill in its November 2022 Session. This indicates the lack of intent of certain state legislatures to improve their functioning.
In the case of Parliament, a significant portion of scrutiny is also carried out by the Department Related Standing Committees, even when Parliament is not in session. In the 14th Lok Sabha (LS), 60% of the Bills introduced were sent to Committees for detailed examination, and in the 15th LS, 71% were sent. These figures have reduced recently – in the 16th LS 27% of the Bills were sent to Committees, and so far in the 17th LS, 13% have been sent. However, across states, sending Bills to Committees for detailed examination is often the exception than the norm. In 2021, less than 10% of the Bills were sent to Committees. None of the Bills passed by the Uttarakhand Assembly had been examined by a committee. States that are an exception here include Kerala which has 14 subject Committees, and Bills are regularly sent to these for examination. However, these Committees are headed by their respective Ministers, which reduces the scope of independent scrutiny that may be undertaken.