Yesterday, the government circulated certain official amendments to the Constitution (122nd Amendment) Bill, 2014 on GST. The Bill is currently pending in Rajya Sabha. The Bill was introduced and passed in Lok Sabha in May 2015. It was then referred to a Select Committee of Rajya Sabha which submitted its report in July 2015. With the Bill listed for passage this week, we explain key provisions in the Bill, and the amendments proposed. What is the GST? Currently, indirect taxes are imposed on goods and services. These include excise duty, sales tax, service tax, octroi, customs duty etc. Some of these taxes are levied by the centre and some by the states. For taxes imposed by states, the tax rates may vary across different states. Also, goods and services are taxed differently. The Goods and Services Tax (GST) is a value added tax levied across goods and services at the point of consumption. The idea of a GST regime is to subsume most indirect taxes under a single taxation regime. This is expected to help broaden the tax base, increase tax compliance, and reduce economic distortions caused by inter-state variations in taxes. What does the 2014 Bill on GST do? The 2014 Bill amends the Constitution to give concurrent powers to Parliament and state legislatures to levy a Goods and Services tax (GST). This implies that the centre will levy a central GST (CGST), while states will be permitted to levy a state GST (SGST). For goods and services that pass through several states, or imports, the centre will levy another tax, the Integrated GST (IGST). Alcohol for human consumption has been kept out of the purview of GST. Further, GST will be levied on 5 types of petroleum products at a later date, to be decided by the GST Council. The Council is a body comprising of Finance Ministers of the centre and all states (including Delhi and Puducherry). This body will make recommendations in relation to the implementation of GST, including the rates, principles of levy, etc. The Council is also to decide the modalities for resolution of disputes that arise out of its recommendations. States may be given compensation for any revenue losses they may face from the introduction of the GST regime. Such compensation may be provided for a period of up to five years. Further, the centre may levy an additional tax, up to 1%, in the course of interstate trade. The revenues from the levy of this tax will be given to the state from where the good originates. Expert bodies like the Select Committee and the Arvind Subramanian Committee have observed that this provision could lead to cascading of taxes (as tax on tax will be levied).[i] It also distorts the creation of a national market, as a product made in one state and sold in another would be more expensive than one made and sold within the same state. What are the key changes proposed by the 2016 amendments? The amendments propose three key changes to the 2014 Bill. They relate to (i) additional tax up to 1%; (ii) compensation to states; and (iii) dispute resolution by the GST Council.
These amendments will be taken up for discussion with the Bill in Rajya Sabha this week. The Bill requires a special majority for its passage as it is a Constitution Amendment Bill (that is at least 50% majority of the total membership in the House, and 2/3rds majority of all members present and voting). If the Bill is passed with amendments, it will have to be sent back to Lok Sabha for consideration and passage. After its passage in Parliament, at least 50% state legislatures will have to pass resolutions to ratify the Bill. Once the constitutional framework is in place, the centre will have to pass simple laws to levy CGST and IGST. Similarly, all states will have to pass a simple law on SGST. These laws will specify the rates of the GST to be levied, the goods and services that will be included, the threshold of the turnover of businesses to be included, etc. Note that the Arvind Subramanian Committee, set up by the Finance Ministry, recommended the rates of GST that may be levied. The table below details the bands of rates proposed.
|Table 1: Rates of GST recommended by Expert Committee headed by Arvind Subramanian|
|Type of rate||Rate||Details|
|Revenue Neutral Rate||15%||Single rate which maintains revenue at current levels.|
|Standard Rate||17-18%||Too be applied to most goods and services|
|Lower rates||12%||To be applied to certain goods consumed by the poor|
|Demerit rate||40%||To be applied on luxury cars, aerated beverages, paan masala, and tobacco|
|Source: Arvind Subramanian Committee Report (2015)|
Several other measures related to the back end infrastructure for registration and reporting of GST, administrative officials related to GST, etc. will also have to be put in place, before GST can be rolled out. [For further details on the full list of amendments, please see here. For other details on the GST Bill, please see here.]
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.