The issue of the General Anti Avoidance Rule (GAAR) has dominated the news recently and there are fears that GAAR will discourage foreign investment in India. However, tax avoidance can hinder public finance objectives and it is in this context GAAR was introduced in this year’s Budget. Last week, the Finance Minister pushed back the implementation of GAAR by a year. What is GAAR? GAAR was first introduced in the Direct Taxes Code Bill 2010. The original proposal gave the Commissioner of Income Tax the authority to declare any arrangement or transaction by a taxpayer as ‘impermissible’ if he believed the main purpose of the arrangement was to obtain a tax benefit. The 2012-13 Finance Bill (Bill), that was passed by Parliament yesterday, defines ‘impermissible avoidance arrangements’ as an arrangement that satisfies one of four tests. Under these tests, an agreement would be an ‘impermissible avoidance arrangement’ if it (i) creates rights and obligations not normally created between parties dealing at arm’s length, (ii) results in misuse or abuse of provisions of tax laws, (iii) is carried out in a way not normally employed for bona fide purpose or (iv) lacks commercial substance. As per the Bill, arrangements which lack commercial substance could involve round trip financing, an accommodating party and elements that have the effect of offsetting or cancelling each other. A transaction that disguises the value, location, source, ownership or control of funds would also be deemed to lack commercial substance. The Bill as introduced also presumed that obtaining a tax benefit was the main purpose of an arrangement unless the taxpayer could prove otherwise. Why? GAAR was introduced to address tax avoidance and ensure that those in different tax brackets are taxed the correct amount. In many instances of tax avoidance, arrangements may take place with the sole intention of gaining a tax advantage while complying with the law. This is when the doctrine of ‘substance over form’ may apply. ‘Substance over form’ is where real intention of parties and the purpose of an arrangement is taken into account rather than just the nomenclature of the arrangement. Many countries, like Canada and South Africa, have codified the doctrine of ‘substance over form’ through a GAAR – type ruling. Issues with GAAR A common criticism of GAAR is that it provides discretion and authority to the tax administration which can be misused. The Standing Committee responded to GAAR in their report on the Direct Taxes Code Bill in March, 2012. They suggested that the provisions should ensure that taxpayers entering genuinely valid arrangements are not harassed. They recommended that the onus should be on tax authorities, not the taxpayer, to prove tax avoidance. In addition, the committee suggested an independent body to act as the approving panel to ensure impartiality. They also recommended that the assessing officer be designated in the code to reduce harassment and unwarranted litigation. GAAR Amendments On May 8, 2012 the Finance Minister amended the GAAR provisions following the Standing Committee’s recommendations. The main change was to delay the implementation of GAAR by a year to “provide more time to both taxpayers and the tax administration to address all related issues”. GAAR will now apply on income earned in 2013-14 and thereafter. In addition, the Finance Minister removed the burden upon the taxpayer to prove that the main purpose of an alleged impermissible arrangement was not to obtain tax benefit. These amendments were approved with the passing of the Bill. In his speech, the Finance Minister stated that a Committee had also been formed under the Chairmanship of the Director General of Income Tax. The Committee will suggest rules, guidelines and safeguards for implementation of GAAR. The Committee is expected to submit its recommendations by May 31, 2012 after holding discussions with various stakeholders in the debate.
On June 13, 2022, the West Bengal government passed a Bill to replace the Governor with the Chief Minister, as the Chancellor of 31 state public universities (such as Calcutta University, Jadavpur University). As per the All India Survey on Higher Education (2019-20), state public universities provide higher education to almost 85% of all students enrolled in higher education in India. In this blog, we discuss the role of the Governor in state public universities.
What is the role of the Chancellor in public universities?
State public universities are established through laws passed by state legislatures. In most laws the Governor has been designated as the Chancellor of these universities. The Chancellor functions as the head of public universities, and appoints the Vice-Chancellor of the university. Further, the Chancellor can declare invalid, any university proceeding which is not as per existing laws. In some states (such as Bihar, Gujarat, and Jharkhand), the Chancellor has the power to conduct inspections in the university. The Chancellor also presides over the convocation of the university, and confirms proposals for conferring honorary degrees. This is different in Telangana, where the Chancellor is appointed by the state government.
The Chancellor presides over the meetings of various university bodies (such as the Court/Senate of the university). The Court/Senate decides on matters of general policy related to the development of the university, such as: (i) establishing new university departments, (ii) conferring and withdrawing degrees and titles, and (iii) instituting fellowships.
The West Bengal University Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2022 designates the Chief Minister of West Bengal as the Chancellor of the 31 public universities in the state. Further, the Chief Minister (instead of the Governor) will be the head of these universities, and preside over the meetings of university bodies (such as Court/Senate).
Does the Governor have discretion in his capacity as Chancellor?
In 1997, the Supreme Court held that the Governor was not bound by the aid and advice of the Council of Ministers, while discharging duties of a separate statutory office (such as the Chancellor).
The Sarkaria and Puunchi Commission also dealt with the role of the Governor in educational institutions. Both Commissions concurred that while discharging statutory functions, the Governor is not legally bound by the aid and advice of the Council of Ministers. However, it may be advantageous for the Governor to consult the concerned Minister. The Sarkaria Commission recommended that state legislatures should avoid conferring statutory powers on the Governor, which were not envisaged by the Constitution. The Puunchi Commission observed that the role of Governor as the Chancellor may expose the office to controversies or public criticism. Hence, the role of the Governor should be restricted to constitutional provisions only. The Statement of Objects and Reasons of the West Bengal University Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2022 also mentions this recommendation given by the Puunchi Commission.
Recently, some states have taken steps to reduce the oversight of the Governor in state public universities. In April 2022, the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly passed two Bills, to transfer the power of appointing the Vice-Chancellor (in public universities) from the Governor, to the state government. As of June 8, 2022, these Bills have not received the Governor’s assent.
In 2021, Maharashtra amended the process to appoint the Vice Chancellor of state public universities. Prior to the amendment, a Search Committee forwarded a panel of at least five names to the Chancellor (who is the Governor). The Chancellor could then appoint one of the persons from the suggested panel as Vice-Chancellor, or ask for a fresh panel of names to be recommended. The 2021 amendment mandated the Search Committee to first forward the panel of names to the state government, which would recommend a panel of two names (from the original panel) to the Chancellor. The Chancellor must appoint one of the two names from the panel as Vice-Chancellor within thirty days. As per the amendment, the Chancellor has no option of asking for a fresh panel of names to be recommended.