On the heels of demonetisation, we, the common man, were about to celebrate the tax relief but here we are startled yet again with the power grabbing amendments in the finance bill. As has been widely reported, the Finance Bill 2017 passed by Lok Sabha on Wednesday has proposed sweeping changes that, among other things, make the Aadhaar unique identity number mandatory for filing income tax returns, remove caps on corporate funding to political parties and overhaul the functioning of tribunals.
We shall approach the amendments in three broad aspects, which in totality describes that how smoothly the government has managed to challenge the notions of democracy, that too in a country which is considered to be one of the largest democracies in the world, despite the fact that we are not convinced of the benefits these amendments will reap in.
Threat to judicial independence
India has numerous tribunals that look into the matter pertaining to company law, environmental law, taxation, censorship etc. Tribunals, quasi-judicial bodies, that are essentially streamlined and/or specialized courts, intended to focus on one particular legal field (e.g. landlord-tenant law) for reasons of expertise, informality, efficiency, etc. The finance bill has proposed to wind up some existing tribunals and merging their functions into existing tribunals. The amendments also facilitate the government with the power to draft rules pertaining to the appointment, qualifications, terms of office and removal of the tribunal chairperson and members. These amendments have opened doors to confusion and litigation because of merging of tribunals and also speak of naked power grab by transferring enormous powers from parliament to centre, regarding the appointment and qualification rules. In other words, the executive has been given arbitrary power over the tribunals. It’s trying to control independent institutions. The government has just made that problem much worse.
Political financial reforms
When the budget 2017 lacked lustre, provisions like electoral bonds, which promised of eradicating corruption, came as a rescue. But within two months the government came up with such amendment in the financial bill that will not give any chance to the voters to examine which company is giving donations to which politician and how much. The earlier requirement for companies to declare their political donations in profit and loss statement has been removed. The amendments also allow the corporate to donate as much as they can by removing the cap linked to its net profits, which was in for years. Henceforth all the donations to political funding shall always remain anonymous. With this I am really puzzled, that how government will manage to eradicate corruption, because we are sure that this will not happen like, manna dropping from heaven.
The tax terror
For a change, now any income tax official can waltz into your residential for an IT raid and they are not even supposed to give a reason as to why they believe you to be a tax evader, not to you and not even to the tax tribunal you will appeal to for help. My intention is not to scare you but to let you know about the silent breach of your privacy and right to information.
The finance bill has proposed that income tax officers can now raid homes without having to provide any reason for it. Earlier it was made mandatory for tax authorities to have “reasons to believe” that the person in question had undisclosed assets or is not willing to share the information needed by the IT department, which gave them a reason to hold raids. Also according to the finance bill 2017 any property of the person in question can be provisionally seized, earlier for which permission had to be taken from the court. The government claims that with rules as such it will be able to desert the convict of the benefits it took out of the lags in judicial process, but along with that, these rules will give unprecedented power to the bureaucracy and that would make it a herculean task to keep a check on corruption, and moral hazards.
India has worked as a democracy and as a slowly liberalizing economy precisely because there are at least some checks on government power. The prime minister, empowered by his huge victory in recent local elections, is trying to reduce the power of these checks. This expansion of government’s power explains that, path chosen for India is less liberal than earlier hoped
Lastly from my vantage point, the finance bill 2017 will bring along with itself a clear motive of centralising the power with the government and limiting the role of parliament. Strange enough, but despite such toxic amendments the government is doing away with it because it has a majority in lower house and the stake of upper house is not very high. No matter how convincing our finance minister may try to sound, by consistently claiming that he does not believe in retrospective laws, he can’t cover up the steps towards an unprecedented power grab. The big looser here is public. The amendments introduced in finance bill 2017, are the harbinger of an era of ‘confusion’, ‘litigation’, ‘anonymity’, ‘inspector raj’ and ‘extortion of money’.