The Finance Bill, 2017 is being discussed in Lok Sabha today. Generally, the Finance Bill is passed as a Money Bill since it gives effect to tax changes proposed in the Union Budget. A Money Bill is defined in Article 110 of the Constitution as one which only contains provisions related to taxation, borrowings by the government, or expenditure from Consolidated Fund of India. A Money Bill only needs the approval of Lok Sabha, and is sent to Rajya Sabha for its recommendations. It is deemed to be passed by Rajya Sabha if it does not pass the Bill within 14 calendar days.
In addition to tax changes, the Finance Bill, 2017 proposes to amend several laws such the Securities Exchange Board of India Act, 1992 and the Payment and Settlements Act, 2007 to make structural changes such as creating a payments regulator and changing the composition of the Securities Appellate Tribunal. This week, some amendments to the Finance Bill were circulated. We discuss the provisions of the Bill, and the proposed amendments.
Certain Tribunals to be replaced
Amendments to the Finance Bill seek to replace certain Tribunals and transfer their functions to existing Tribunals. The rationale behind replacing these Tribunals is unclear. For example, the Telecom Disputes Settlement and Appellate Tribunal (TDSAT) will replace the Airports Economic Regulatory Authority Appellate Tribunal. It is unclear if TDSAT, which primarily deals with issues related to telecom disputes, will have the expertise to adjudicate matters related to the pricing of airport services. Similarly, it is unclear if the National Company Law Appellate Tribunal, which will replace the Competition Appellate Tribunal, will have the expertise to deal with matters related to anti-competitive practices.
Terms of service of Tribunal members to be determined by central government
The amendments propose that the central government may make rules to provide for the terms of service including appointments, term of office, salaries and allowances, and removal for Chairpersons and other members of Tribunals, Appellate Tribunals and other authorities. The amendments also cap the age of retirement for Chairpersons and Vice-Chairpersons. Currently, these terms are specified in the laws establishing these Tribunals.
One may argue that allowing the government to determine the appointment, reappointment and removal of members could affect the independent functioning of the Tribunals. There could be conflict of interest if the government were to be a litigant before a Tribunal as well as determine the appointment of its members and presiding officers.
The Supreme Court in 2014, while examining a case related to the National Tax Tribunal, had held that Appellate Tribunals have similar powers and functions as that of High Courts, and hence matters related to their members’ appointment and reappointment must be free from executive involvement.[i] The list of Tribunals under this amendment includes several Tribunals before which the central government could be a party to disputes, such as those related to income tax, railways, administrative matters, and the armed forces Tribunal.
Note that a Bill to establish uniform conditions of service for the chairpersons and members of some Tribunals has been pending in Parliament since 2014.
Inclusion of technical members in the Securities Appellate Tribunal
The composition of the Securities Appellate Tribunal established under the SEBI Act is being changed by the Finance Bill. Currently, the Tribunal consists of a Presiding Officer and two other members appointed by the central government. This composition is to be changed to: a Presiding Officer, and a number of judicial and technical members, as notified by the central government.
Creation of a Payments Regulatory Board
Recently, the Ratan Watal Committee under the Finance Ministry had recommended creating a statutory Payments Regulatory Board to oversee the payments systems in light of increase in digital payments. The Finance Bill, 2017 seeks to give effect to this recommendation by creating a Payments Regulatory Board chaired by the RBI Governor and including members nominated by the central government. This Board will replace the existing Board for Regulation and Supervision of Payment and Settlement Systems.
The Finance Bill, 2017 proposes to make changes related to how donations may be made to political parties, and maintaining the anonymity of donors.
Currently, for donations below Rs 20,000, details of donors do not have to be disclosed by political parties. Further, there are no restrictions on the amount of cash donations that may be received by political parties from a person. The Finance Bill has proposed to set this limit at Rs 2,000. The Bill also introduces a new mode of donating to political parties, i.e. through electoral bonds. These bonds will be issued by banks, which may be bought through cheque or electronic means. The only difference between cheque payment (above Rs 20,000) and electoral bonds may be that the identity of the donor will be anonymous in the case of electoral bonds.
Regarding donations by companies to political parties, the proposed amendments to the Finance Bill remove the: (i) existing limit of contributions that a company may make to political parties which currently is 7.5% of net profit of the last three financial years, (ii) requirement of a company to disclose the name of the parties to which a contribution has been made. In addition, the Bill also proposes that contributions to parties will have to be made only through a cheque, bank draft, electronic means, or any other instrument notified by the central government.
Aadhaar mandatory for PAN and Income Tax
Amendments to the Finance Bill, 2017 make it mandatory for every person to quote their Aadhaar number after July 1, 2017 when: (i) applying for a Permanent Account Number (PAN), or (ii) filing their Income Tax returns. Persons who do not have an Aadhaar will be required to quote their Aadhaar enrolment number indicating that an application to obtain Aadhaar has been filed.
Every person holding a PAN on July 1, 2017 will be required to provide the authorities with his Aadhaar number by a date and in a manner notified by the central government. Failure to provide this number would result in the PAN being invalidated.
The Finance Bill, 2017 is making structural changes to some laws. Parliamentary committees allow for a forum for detailed scrutiny, deliberations and public consultation on proposed laws. The opportunity to build rigour into the law-making process is lost if such legislative changes are not examined by committees
[i] Madras Bar Association vs. Union of India, Transfer Case No. 150 of 2006, Supreme Court of India, September 25, 2014 (para 89).
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.