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Central Transfers to States: Role of the Finance Commission

April 11th, 2018 No comments

In November 2017, the 15th Finance Commission (Chair: Mr N. K. Singh) was constituted to give recommendations on the transfer of resources from the centre to states for the five year period between 2020-25.  In recent times, there has been some discussion around the role and mandate of the Commission.  In this context, we explain the role of the Finance Commission.

What is the Finance Commission?

The Finance Commission is a constitutional body formed every five years to give suggestions on centre-state financial relations.  Each Finance Commission is required to make recommendations on: (i) sharing of central taxes with states, (ii) distribution of central grants to states, (iii) measures to improve the finances of states to supplement the resources of panchayats and municipalities, and (iv) any other matter referred to it.

Composition of transfers:  The central taxes devolved to states are untied funds, and states can spend them according to their discretion.  Over the years, tax devolved to states has constituted over 80% of the total central transfers to states (Figure 1).  The centre also provides grants to states and local bodies which must be used for specified purposes.  These grants have ranged between 12% to 19% of the total transfers.

Fig 1Over the years the core mandate of the Commission has remained unchanged, though it has been given the additional responsibility of examining various issues.  For instance, the 12th Finance Commission evaluated the fiscal position of states and offered relief to those that enacted their Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management laws.  The 13th and the 14th Finance Commission assessed the impact of GST on the economy.  The 13th Finance Commission also incentivised states to increase forest cover by providing additional grants.

15th Finance Commission:  The 15th Finance Commission constituted in November 2017 will recommend central transfers to states.  It has also been mandated to: (i) review the impact of the 14th Finance Commission recommendations on the fiscal position of the centre; (ii) review the debt level of the centre and states, and recommend a roadmap; (iii) study the impact of GST on the economy; and (iv) recommend performance-based incentives for states based on their efforts to control population, promote ease of doing business, and control expenditure on populist measures, among others.

Why is there a need for a Finance Commission?

The Indian federal system allows for the division of power and responsibilities between the centre and states.  Correspondingly, the taxation powers are also broadly divided between the centre and states (Table 1).  State legislatures may devolve some of their taxation powers to local bodies.

Table 1

The centre collects majority of the tax revenue as it enjoys scale economies in the collection of certain taxes.  States have the responsibility of delivering public goods in their areas due to their proximity to local issues and needs.

Sometimes, this leads to states incurring expenditures higher than the revenue generated by them.  Further, due to vast regional disparities some states are unable to raise adequate resources as compared to others.  To address these imbalances, the Finance Commission recommends the extent of central funds to be shared with states.  Prior to 2000, only revenue income tax and union excise duty on certain goods was shared by the centre with states.  A Constitution amendment in 2000 allowed for all central taxes to be shared with states.

Several other federal countries, such as Pakistan, Malaysia, and Australia have similar bodies which recommend the manner in which central funds will be shared with states.

Tax devolution to states

Table 2The 14th Finance Commission considerably increased the devolution of taxes from the centre to states from 32% to 42%.  The Commission had recommended that tax devolution should be the primary source of transfer of funds to states.  This would increase the flow of unconditional transfers and give states more flexibility in their spending.

The share in central taxes is distributed among states based on a formula.   Previous Finance Commissions have considered various factors to determine the criteria such as the population and income needs of states, their area and infrastructure, etc.  Further, the weightage assigned to each criterion has varied with each Finance Commission.

The criteria used by the 11th to 14th Finance Commissions are given in Table 2, along with the weight assigned to them.  State level details of the criteria used by the 14th Finance Commission are given in Table 3.

  • Population is an indicator of the expenditure needs of a state. Over the years, Finance Commissions have used population data of the 1971 Census.  The 14th Finance Commission used the 2011 population data, in addition to the 1971 data.  The 15th Finance Commission has been mandated to use data from the 2011 Census.
  • Area is used as a criterion as a state with larger area has to incur additional administrative costs to deliver services.
  • Income distance is the difference between the per capita income of a state with the average per capita income of all states. States with lower per capita income may be given a higher share to maintain equity among states.
  • Forest cover indicates that states with large forest covers bear the cost of not having area available for other economic activities. Therefore, the rationale is that these states may be given a higher share.

Table 3

Grants-in-Aid

Besides the taxes devolved to states, another source of transfers from the centre to states is grants-in-aid.  As per the recommendations of the 14th Finance Commission, grants-in-aid constitute 12% of the central transfers to states.  The 14th Finance Commission had recommended grants to states for three purposes: (i) disaster relief, (ii) local bodies, and (iii) revenue deficit.

Healthcare Financing: Who is paying?

April 6th, 2018 1 comment

The Union Cabinet recently approved the launch of the National Health Protection Mission which was announced during Budget 2018-19.   The Mission aims to provide a cover of five lakh rupees per family per year to about 10.7 crore families belonging to poor and vulnerable population.  The insurance coverage is targeted for hospitalisation at the secondary and tertiary health care levels. This post explains the healthcare financing scenario in India, which is distributed across the centre, states, and individuals.

How much does India spend on health care financing vis-à-vis other countries?

The public health expenditure in India (total of centre and state governments) has remained constant at approximately 1.3% of the GDP between 2008 and 2015, and increased marginally to 1.4% in 2016-17.  This is less than the world average of 6%.   Note that the National Health Policy, 2017 proposes to increase this to 2.5% of GDP by 2025.

Including the private sector, the total health expenditure as a percentage of GDP is estimated at 3.9%.  Out of the total expenditure, effectively about one-third (30%) is contributed by the public sector.  This contribution is low as compared to other developing and developed countries.  Examples include Brazil (46%), China (56%), Indonesia (39%), USA (48%), and UK (83%) (see Figure 1).

Fig 1

Who pays for healthcare in India? Mostly, it is the consumer out of his own pocket.

Given the public-private split of health care expenditure, it is quite clear that it is the private expenditure which dominates i.e. the individual consumer who bears the cost of her own healthcare.  Let’s look at a further disaggregation of public spending and private spending to understand this.

In 2018-19, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare received an allocation of Rs 54,600 crore (an increase of 2% over 2017-18).  The National Health Mission (NHM) received the highest allocation at Rs 30,130 crore and constitutes 55% of the total Ministry allocation (see Table 1).  Despite a higher allocation, NHM has seen a decline in the allocation vis-à-vis 2017-18.

Interestingly, in 2017-18, expenditure on NHM is expected to be Rs 4,000 crore more than what had been estimated earlier.  This may indicate a greater capacity to spend than what was earlier allocated.  A similar trend is exhibited at the overall Ministry level where the utilisation of the allocated funds has been over 100% in the last three years.

Table 1State level spending

A NITI Aayog report (2017) noted that low income states with low revenue capacity spend significant lower on social services like health.  Further, differences in the cost of delivering health services have contributed to health disparities among and within states.

Following the 14th Finance Commission recommendations, there has been an increase in the states’ share in central pool of taxes and they were given greater autonomy and flexibility to spend according to their priorities. Despite the enhanced share of states in central taxes, the increase in health budgets by some states has been marginal (see Figure 2).

Fig 2Consumer level spending

If cumulatively 30% of the total health expenditure is incurred by the public sector, the rest of the health expenditure, i.e. approximately 70% is borne by consumers.  Household health expenditures include out of pocket expenditures (95%) and insurance (5%). Out of pocket expenditure dominate and these are the payments made directly by individuals at the point of services which are not covered under any financial protection scheme.  The highest percentage of out of pocket health expenditure (52%) is made towards medicines (see Figure 3).

Fig 3

This is followed by private hospitals (22%), medical and diagnostic labs (10%), and patient transportation, and emergency rescue (6%).  Out of pocket expenditure is typically financed by household revenues (71%) (see Figure 4).

Fig 4

Note that 86% of rural population and 82% of urban population are not covered under any scheme of health expenditure support.   Due to high out of pocket healthcare expenditure, about 7% population is pushed below the poverty threshold every year.

Out of the total number of persons covered under health insurance in India, three-fourths are covered under government sponsored health schemes and the balance one-fourth are covered by private insurers.  With respect to the government sponsored health insurance, more claims have been made in comparison to the premiums collected, i.e., the returns to the government have been negative.

It is in this context that the newly proposed National Health Protection Mission will be implemented.  First, the scheme seeks to provide coverage for hospitalisation at the secondary and tertiary levels of healthcare.  The High Level Expert Group set up by the Planning Commission (2011) recommended that the focus of healthcare provision in the country should be towards providing primary health care.  It observed that focus on prevention and early management of health problems can reduce the need for complicated specialist care provided at the tertiary level.  Note that depending on the level of care required, health institutions in India are broadly classified into three types: primary care (provided at primary health centres), secondary care (provided at district hospitals), and tertiary care institutions (provided at specialised hospitals like AIIMS).

Second, the focus of the Mission seems to be on hospitalisation (including pre and post hospitalisation charges).  However, most of the out of the pocket expenditure made by consumers is actually on buying medicines (52%) as seen in Figure 3.  Further, these purchases are mostly made for patients who do not need hospitalisation.

Internal Security: Examining the Working of the Home Ministry

March 20th, 2018 3 comments

Each year during the Budget Session, Rajya Sabha examines the working of certain ministries.  This year it has identified four ministries for discussion, which includes the Ministry of Home Affairs.  In light of this, we analyse some key functions of the Ministry and the challenges in carrying out these functions.

What are the key functions of Ministry of Home Affairs?  

The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) is primarily responsible for: (i) maintenance of internal security, (ii) governance issues between the centre and states, and (iii) disaster management.  It also discharges several other key functions that include: (i) border management, (ii) administration of union territories, (iii) implementation of provisions relating to the official languages, and (iv) conducting the population census every ten years.

Under the Constitution, ‘public order’ and ‘police’ are state list subjects.  The MHA assists the state governments by providing them: (i) central armed police forces, and (ii) financial assistance for modernising state police forces, communication equipment, weaponry, mobility, training and other police infrastructure.

What is the role of the central armed police forces?

Table 1The MHA manages seven central police forces: (i) Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) which assists in internal security and law and order, (ii) Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) which protects vital installations (like airports) and public sector undertakings, (iii) National Security Guards which is a special counter-terrorism force, and (iv) four border guarding forces, namely, Border Security Force (BSF), Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP), Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB) and Assam Rifles (AR).

As of January 2017, the total sanctioned strength of the seven CAPFs was 10. 8 lakhs.  However, 15% of these posts (i.e., about 1.6 lakhs posts) were lying vacant.  The vacancy in the CAPFs has remained above 7% for the last five years (see Table 1).  In 2017, the Sashastra Seema Bal had the highest vacancy (57%).  The CRPF, which accounts for 30% of the total sanctioned strength of the seven CAPFs, had a vacancy of 8%.

How does MHA assist the police forces?

In Union Budget 2018-19, Rs 1,07,573 crore has been allocated to the Ministry of Home Affairs.  The Ministry has estimated to spend 82% of this amount on police.  The remaining allocation is towards grants to Union Territories, and other items including disaster management, rehabilitation of refugees and migrants, and the Union Cabinet.

The MHA has been implementing Modernisation of Police Forces (MPF) scheme since 1969 to supplement the resources of states for modernising their police forces.  Funds from the MPF scheme are utilised for improving police infrastructure through construction of police stations, and provision of modern weaponry, surveillance, and communication equipment.  Some other important objectives under the scheme include upgradation of training infrastructure, police housing, and computerisation.

The scheme has undergone revision over the years.  A total allocation of Rs 11,946 crore was approved for the MPF scheme, for a five-year period between 2012-13 to 2016-17.  Following the recommendations of the 14th Finance Commission (to increase the share of central taxes to states), it was decided that the MPF scheme would be delinked from central government funding from 2015-16 onwards. However, in September 2017, the Union Cabinet approved an outlay of Rs 25,060 crore under the scheme, for the period 2017-18 to 2019-20.  The central government will provide about 75% of this amount, and the states will provide the remaining 25%.

The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) has found that weaponry in several state police forces is outdated, and there is a shortage of arms and ammunitions.  An audit of Rajasthan police force (2009-14) found that there was a shortage of 75% in the availability of modern weapons against the state’s requirements.  In case of West Bengal and Gujarat police forces, CAG found a shortage of 71% and 36% respectively.  Further, there has been a persistent problem of underutilisation of modernisation funds by the states.  Figure 1 shows the level of utilisation of modernisation funds by states between 2010-11 and 2016-17.

Figure 1

What are the major internal security challenges in India?

Maintaining internal security of the country is one of the key functions of the MHA.  The major internal security challenges that India faces are: (i) terrorist activities in the country, (ii) cross-border terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir, (iii) Left Wing Extremism in certain areas, and (iv) insurgency in the North-Eastern states.

Between 2015 and 2016, the number of cross-border infiltrations in Jammu and Kashmir increased by almost three times, from 121 to 364.   On the other hand, incidents of insurgency in Left Wing Extremism areas have decreased from 1,048 in 2016 to 908 in 2017.

The Standing Committee on Home Affairs noted in 2017-18 that security forces in Jammu and Kashmir are occupied with law and order incidents, such as stone pelting, which gives militants the time to reorganise and perpetrate terror attacks.  The Committee recommended that the MHA should adopt a multi-pronged strategy that prevents youth from joining militancy, curbs their financing, and simultaneously launch counter-insurgency operations.

In relation to Left Wing Extremism, the Standing Committee (2017) observed that police and paramilitary personnel were getting killed because of mine blasts and ambushes.  It recommended that the MHA should make efforts to procure mine-resistant vehicles.  This could be done through import or domestic manufacturing under the ‘Make in India’ programme.

What is the MHA’s role in border management?

India has a land border of over 15,000 kms, which it shares with seven countries (Pakistan, China, Bangladesh, Nepal, Myanmar, Bhutan, and Afghanistan).  Further, it has a coastline of over 7,500 kms.  The MHA is responsible for: (i) management of international lands and coastal borders, (ii) strengthening of border guarding, and (iii) creation of infrastructure such as roads, fencing, and lighting of borders.

Construction of border outposts is one of the components of infrastructure at border areas.  The Standing Committee on Home Affairs (2017) noted that the proposal to construct 509 outposts along the India-Bangladesh, and India-Pakistan borders had been reduced to 422 outposts in 2016.  It recommended that such a reduction should be reconsidered since 509 outposts would reduce the inter-border outpost distance to 3.5 kms, which is important for the security of the country.

How is coastal security carried out?

Coastal security is jointly carried out by the Indian Navy, Indian Coast Guard, and marine police of coastal states and Union Territories.  The MHA is implementing the Coastal Security Scheme to strengthen the marine police of nine coastal states and four Union Territories by enhancing surveillance, and improve patrolling in coastal areas.  Under this scheme, the Ministry sought to construct coastal police stations, purchase boats, and acquire vehicles for patrolling on land, among other objectives.

The Standing Committee on Home Affairs (2017) observed that the implementation of Phase-II of this scheme within the set time-frame has not been possible.  It also noted that there was lack of coordination between the Indian Navy, the Indian Coast Guard, and the coastal police.  In this context, the Committee recommended that the Director General, Indian Coast Guard, should be the nodal authority for coordinating operations related to coastal security.

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Explained: Law on holding an ‘Office of Profit’

February 22nd, 2018 1 comment

Following the recommendation of the Election Commission (EC), the President disqualified 20 MLAs of the Delhi Legislative Assembly last month for holding an ‘office of profit’. The legislators in question were appointed as parliamentary secretaries to various ministries in the Delhi government. The Delhi High Court is currently hearing a petition filed by the disqualified MLAs against the EC’s recommendation. There have been reports of parliamentary secretaries being appointed in 20 states in the past with court judgments striking down these appointments in several cases. In this context, we discuss the law on holding an ‘office of profit’.

What is the concept of ‘office of profit’?

MPs and MLAs, as members of the legislature, hold the government accountable for its work. The essence of disqualification under the office of profit law is if legislators holds an ‘office of profit’ under the government, they might be susceptible to government influence, and may not discharge their constitutional mandate fairly. The intent is that there should be no conflict between the duties and interests of an elected member. Hence, the office of profit law simply seeks to enforce a basic feature of the Constitution- the principle of separation of power between the legislature and the executive.

According to the definition, what constitutes an ‘office of profit’?

The law does not clearly define what constitutes an office of profit but the definition has evolved over the years with interpretations made in various court judgments. An office of profit has been interpreted to be a position that brings to the office-holder some financial gain, or advantage, or benefit. The amount of such profit is immaterial.

In 1964, the Supreme Court ruled that the test for determining whether a person holds an office of profit is the test of appointment. Several factors are considered in this determination including factors such as: (i) whether the government is the appointing authority, (ii) whether the government has the power to terminate the appointment, (iii) whether the government determines the remuneration, (iv) what is the source of remuneration, and (v) the power that comes with the position.

What does the Constitution say about holding an ‘office of profit’? Can exemptions be granted under the law?

Under the provisions of Article 102 (1) and Article 191 (1) of the Constitution, an MP or an MLA (or an MLC) is barred from holding any office of profit under the central or state government. The articles clarify that “a person shall not be deemed to hold an office of profit under the government of India or the government of any state by reason only that he is a minister”. The Constitution specifies that the number of ministers including the Chief Minister has to be within 15% of the total number of members of the assembly (10% in the case of Delhi, which is a union territory with legislature).

Provisions of Articles 102 and 191 also protect a legislator occupying a government position if the office in question has been made immune to disqualification by law. In the recent past, several state legislatures have enacted laws exempting certain offices from the purview of office of profit.  Parliament has also enacted the Parliament (Prevention of Disqualification) Act, 1959, which has been amended several times to expand the exempted list.

Is there a bar on how many offices can be exempted from the purview of the law?

There is no bar on how many offices can be exempted from the purview of the law.

It was reported in 2015 that all 60 MLAs of the Nagaland Assembly had joined the ruling alliance. The Nagaland Chief Minister appointed 26 legislators as parliamentary secretaries in July 2017. Goa, an assembly of 40 MLAs, exempted more than 50 offices by means of an ordinance issued in June last year. Puducherry, an assembly of 33 MLAs, exempted more than 60 offices by passing an amendment bill in 2009.  In Delhi, the 21 parliamentary secretaries added to the seven ministerial posts would constitute 40% of the 70-member legislature.  In all, 20 states have similar provisions.

This raises an important concern. If a large number of legislators are appointed to such offices, their role in scrutinising the work of the government may be impaired. Thus, this could contravene the spirit of Articles 102 and 191 of the Constitution.

What is the debate around making appointments to the office of parliamentary secretaries?

Interestingly, the appointment of legislators as parliamentary secretaries, in spite of the office being exempted from purview of the office of profit law, has been struck down by courts in several states.

Why has the appointment as a parliamentary secretary been struck down while other offices are allowed to be exempt from the purview of the law? If legislators can be accommodated in positions other than ‘parliamentary secretary’, why do state governments continue to appoint legislators as parliamentary secretaries instead of appointing them to other offices?

These questions have been answered in a Calcutta High Court judgment in 2015 which held that since the position may confer the rank of a junior minister on the legislator, the appointment of MLAs as parliamentary secretaries was an attempt by state governments to bypass the constitutional ceiling on the number of ministers. In 2009, the Bombay High Court also held that appointing parliamentary secretaries of the rank and status of a Cabinet Minister is in violation of Article 164 (1A) of the Constitution.  The Article specifies that the number of ministers including the Chief Minister should not exceed 15% of the total number of members in the assembly.

Making Smart Cities

January 23rd, 2018 1 comment

In the last decade, the government has implemented several schemes to address issues related to urbanisation and aid the process of urban development.  One of the schemes is the Smart Cities Mission, which intends to take advantage of the developments in information technology in developing the urban development strategy, across 100 cities.  Last week the government announced the list of 9 new Smart Cities, taking the total to 99.  In light of this, we look at the Smart Cities Mission and a few issues with it.

What is a Smart City?

The primary objective of the Mission is to develop cities that provide core infrastructure and give a decent quality of life to its citizens, a clean and sustainable environment, and apply ‘smart’ solutions.

However, the Mission document does not provide one definition of a Smart City.  Instead it allows cities to come up with their own solutions of what they identify as a Smart City.  The guidelines suggest that the core infrastructure elements in a Smart City will include: (i) adequate water supply, (ii) assured electricity supply, (iii) sanitation, including solid waste management, (iv) efficient urban mobility and public transport, (v) affordable housing, (vi) robust IT connectivity, and (vii) good governance.  ‘Smart’ solutions may include (i) energy efficient buildings, (ii) electronic service delivery, (iii) intelligent traffic management, (iv) smart metering, (v) citizen engagement, etc.

How were the Smart Cities selected?

The Mission was introduced in the form of a competition, called the Smart City challenge.  The first stage was in July 2015 when states nominated their cities for the competition.  In August 2015, the Ministry of Urban Development selected 100 of those cities to participate in the competition.  These cities were required to develop their smart city plans (SCPs) and compete against each other.  The SCPs were evaluated on the basis of the solutions, the processes followed, the feasibility and cost effectiveness of the plans, and citizen engagement.  Over the last 2 years, the Ministry has announced winner cities in batches.  So far, 99 cities have been selected under the Mission.

What information do these SCPs contain?

The cities had to prepare their SCPs with two primary strategic components: (i) area-based development, and (ii) pan-city development.  The area-based development would cover a particular area of the city, and could have either a redevelopment model, or be a completely new development.  Pan-city development would envisage application of certain smart solutions across the city to the existing infrastructure.

Each city had to formulate its own concept, vision, mission and plan for a Smart City that was appropriate to its local context and resources.  The Ministry of Urban Development provided technical assistance, through consultancy firms, to cities for helping them prepare these strategic documents.

How will the Mission be implemented?

The Mission will be implemented at the city level by a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV).  The SPV will plan, approve, release funds, implement, manage, monitor, and evaluate the Smart City development projects.

The SPV will be a limited company incorporated under the Companies Act, 2013 at the city-level.  It will be chaired by the Collector/ Municipal Commissioner of the Urban Development Authority.  The respective state and the Urban Local Body (ULB or municipality) will be the promoters in this company having 50:50 equity shareholding.

How are the Plans getting financed?

The Mission will be operated as a Centrally Sponsored Scheme.  The central government will provide financial support of up to Rs 48,000 crore over five years, that is, an average of Rs 500 crore per city.  The states and ULBs will have to contribute an equal amount.  The central government allocated Rs 4,000 crore towards the Mission in the 2017-18 budget.

Since funding from the government will meet only a part of the funding required, the rest will have to be raised from other sources including: (i) states/ ULBs own resources from collection of user fees, land monetization, etc., (ii) innovative finance mechanisms such as municipal bonds, (iii) leverage borrowings from financial institutions (such as banks), and (iv) the private sector through Public Private Partnerships (PPPs).

The total cost of projects proposed under the various SCPs of the 90 winner cities is Rs 1.9 lakh crore.  About 42% of this amount will come from central and state funding, 23% through private investments and PPPs, and 19% through convergence with other schemes (such as HRIDAY, AMRUT, Swachh Bharat-Urban).  The remaining will be generated by the cities through the levy of local taxes, and user fees.

What are some of the issues to consider?

Financial capacity of cities:  Under the Mission, cities have to generate additional revenue through various sources including market borrowings, PPPs, and land monetization.  The High Powered Expert Committee on Indian Urban Infrastructure and Services (HPEC) had observed that ULBs in India are among the weakest in the world, both in terms of capacity to raise resources and financial autonomy.  Even though ULBs have been getting higher allocations from the centre and states, and tax devolution to them has increased, their own tax bases are narrow.  Further, owing to their poor governance and financial situation, ULBs find it difficult to access external financing.

Such a situation may pose problems when implementing the Mission, where the ULBs have to raise a significant share of the revenue through external sources (PPPs, market borrowings).  For example, the Bhubaneswar Smart City Plan has a total project cost of Rs 4,537 crore (over five years), while the city’s annual budget for 2014-15 was Rs 469 crore.

In order to improve the finances of the ULBs, committees have made various recommendations, which include:

  • State governments make legislative changes to give more taxation powers and autonomy to ULBs for improving their revenue collections.
  • ULBs could raise their own revenue by tapping into land-based financing sources, and introducing reforms to strengthen non-tax revenues (such as water and sewerage charges, parking fees, etc.).
  • Municipal bonds may also be used as a source of revenue for ULBs.

The government has recently introduced a few policies and mechanisms to address municipal financing.  Examples include value capture financing through public investments in infrastructure projects, and a credit rating system for cities.  In June 2017, the Pune Municipal Corporation raised Rs 200 crore by issuing municipal bonds.

Technical capacity of the ULBs:  The Smart Cities Mission seeks to empower ULBs to raise their own revenue, and also lays emphasis on the capacity building of ULBs.  The HPEC had observed that municipal administration has suffered due to: (i) presence of untrained and unskilled manpower, and (ii) shortage of qualified technical staff and managerial supervisors.  It had recommended improving the technical capacity of ULBs by providing technical assistance to state governments, and ULBs in planning, financing, monitoring, and operation of urban programmes.  The central government had allocated Rs 10.5 crore towards the capacity building component of the Mission in 2017-18.

The Ministry of Urban Development has been running several programmes to improve capacity of ULBs.  This includes MoUs with 18 states to conduct training programmes for their ULB staff.

Coverage of the Mission:  The Mission covers 100 cities, of which 99 have been announced as winners so far.   The urban population that will be impacted through the Mission is around 96 million (data for 90 cities excluding the recently announced 9 cities).

As per Census 2011, India’s urban population was 377 million.  The Mission impacts about 25% of this population.  Further, most of the SCPs approved so far focus on area-based development, thus affecting a particular area of the cities.  About 80% of the total project cost proposed is towards this model of development.  In each city, this area-based development will cover up to 50 acres of area.  The remaining 20% of the project cost is towards pan-city development proposals, which provide smart planning solutions for the entire city.  It may be argued that even within the selected cities, the Mission will only impact few selected areas, and not necessarily help with development of the entire city.

Explained: The draft Model Contract Farming Act, 2018

January 8th, 2018 1 comment

Recently, the Ministry of Agriculture released a draft Model Contract Farming Act, 2018.  The draft Model Act seeks to create a regulatory and policy framework for contract farming.  Based on this draft Model Act, legislatures of states can enact a law on contract farming as contracts fall under the Concurrent List of the Constitution.  In this context, we discuss contract farming, issues related to it, and progress so far.

What is contract farming?

Under contract farming, agricultural production (including livestock and poultry) can be carried out based on a pre-harvest agreement between buyers (such as food processing units and exporters), and producers (farmers or farmer organisations).  The producer can sell the agricultural produce at a specific price in the future to the buyer as per the agreement.  Under contract farming, the producer can reduce the risk of fluctuating market price and demand.  The buyer can reduce the risk of non-availability of quality produce.

Under the draft Model Act, the producer can get support from the buyer for improving production through inputs (such as technology, pre-harvest and post-harvest infrastructure) as per the agreement.  However, the buyer cannot raise a permanent structure on the producer’s land.  Rights or title ownership of the producer’s land cannot be transferred to the buyer.

What is the existing regulatory structure?

Currently, contract farming requires registration with the Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee (APMC) in few states.  This means that contractual agreements are recorded with the APMCs which can also resolve disputes arising out of these contracts.  Further, market fees and levies are paid to the APMC to undertake contract farming.  The Model APMC Act, 2003 provided for contract farming and was released to the states for them to use this as reference while enacting their respective laws.  Consequently, 20 states have amended their APMC Acts to provide for contract farming, while Punjab has a separate law on contract farming.  However, only 14 states notified rules related to contract farming, as of October 2016.

What are the issues with the current structure, and how does the draft Model Act seek to address them?

Over the years, expert bodies have identified issues related to the implementation of contract farming.  These include: (i) role of APMCs which are designated as an authority for registration and dispute settlement in most states, (ii) provisions of stockholding limits on produce under contract farming, and (iii) poor publicity of contract farming among the farmers about its benefits.

Role of Agricultural Produce Marketing Committees/Marketing Boards

The NITI Aayog observed that market fees and other levies are paid to the APMC for contract framing when no services such as market facilities and infrastructure are rendered by them.  In this context, the Committee of State Ministers on Agricultural Reforms recommended that contract farming should be out of the ambit of APMCs.  Instead, an independent regulatory authority must be brought in to disengage contract farming stakeholders from the existing APMCs.

In this regard, as per the draft Model Act, contract farming will be outside the ambit of the state APMCs.  This implies that buyers need not pay market fee and commission charges to these APMCs to undertake contract farming.  Further, the draft Model Act provides for establishing a state-level Contract Farming (Promotion and Facilitation) Authority to ensure implementation of the draft Model Act.  Functions of the Authority include (i) levying and collecting facilitation fees, (ii) disposing appeals related to disputes under the draft Model Act, and (iii) publicising contract farming.  Further, the sale and purchase of contracted produce is out of the ambit of regulation of the respective state/UT Agricultural Marketing Act.

Registration and agreement recording

The Model APMC Act, 2003 released to the states provides for the registration of contract farming agreements by an APMC.  This was done to safeguard the interests of the producer and the buyer through legal support, including dispute resolution.  The procedures for registration and recording of agreements vary across states.  Currently, registration for contract farming has been provided with the APMC in few states, and with a state-level nodal agency in others.  Further, market fee on purchases under contract agreements is completely exempted in few states and partially exempted in others.  The Committee of State Ministers on Agricultural Reforms recommended that a instead of a APMC, district-level authorities can be set-up for registration of contract farming agreements.  Further, any registering authority should verify the details such as the financial status of the buyer.

Under the draft Model Act, every agreement should be registered with a Registering and Agreement Recording Committee, which will be set up consisting of officials from departments such as agriculture, animal husbandry, marketing, and rural development.  Such a Committee can be set up at the district, taluka or block levels.

Disputes between the producer and the buyer

The Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare observed certain risks related to upholding the contract farming agreement.  For example, producers may sell their produce to a buyer other than the one with whom they hold a contract.  On the other side, a buyer may fail to buy products at the agreed prices or in the agreed quantities, or arbitrarily downgrade produce quality.  The Committee of State Ministers on Agricultural Reforms recommended that dispute redressal mechanism should be at block, district or regional-level state authorities and not with an APMC.

Under the draft Model Act, in case of disputes between a producer and a buyer, they can: (i) reach a mutually acceptable solution through negotiation or conciliation, (ii) refer the dispute to a dispute settlement officer designated by the state government, and (iii) appeal to the Contract Farming (Promotion and Facilitation) Authority (to be established in each state) in case they are not satisfied by the decision of the dispute settlement officer.

Stockholdings limits on contracted produce

Stockholding limits are imposed through control orders as per the Essential Commodities Act, 1955.  Such provisions of stockholding limits can be restrictive and discourage buyers to enter into contracts.  It was recommended that the buyers can be exempted from stock limits up to six months of their requirement in the interest of trade.  Under the draft Model Act, limits of stockholding of agricultural produce will not be applicable on produce purchased under contract farming.

Other recommendations

While contract farming seeks to provide alternative marketing channels and better price realisation to farmers, several other marketing reforms have been suggested by experts in this regard.  These include: (i) allowing direct sale of produce by farmers, (ii) removing fruits and vegetables out of the ambit of APMCs, and (iii) setting-up of farmer-consumer markets, (iv) electronic trading, and (v) joining electronic National Agricultural Market for the sale of produce.

The Anti-Defection Law Explained

December 6th, 2017 No comments

On Monday, December 4, the Chairman of Rajya Sabha disqualified two Members of Parliament (MPs) from the House under the Tenth Schedule of the Constitution (better known as the anti-defection law) for having defected from their party.[1] These members were elected on a Janata Dal (United) ticket.  The Madras High Court is also hearing petitions filed by 18 MLAs who were disqualified by the Speaker of the Tamil Nadu Assembly in September 2017 under the anti-defection law.  Allegations of legislators defecting in violation of the law have been made in several other states including Andhra Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Goa, Manipur, Nagaland, Telangana and Uttarakhand in recent years.[2]  In this context, we explain the anti-defection law.

What is the anti-defection law?

Aaya Ram Gaya Ram was a phrase that became popular in Indian politics after a Haryana MLA Gaya Lal changed his party thrice within the same day in 1967.  The anti-defection law sought to prevent such political defections which may be due to reward of office or other similar considerations.[3]

The Tenth Schedule was inserted in the Constitution in 1985. It lays down the process by which legislators may be disqualified on grounds of defection by the Presiding Officer of a legislature based on a petition by any other member of the House. A legislator is deemed to have defected if he either voluntarily gives up the membership of his party or disobeys the directives of the party leadership on a vote. This implies that a legislator defying (abstaining or voting against) the party whip on any issue can lose his membership of the House.  The law applies to both Parliament and state assemblies.

Are there any exceptions under the law?

Yes, legislators may change their party without the risk of disqualification in certain circumstances. The law allows a party to merge with or into another party provided that at least two-thirds of its legislators are in favour of the merger. In such a scenario, neither the members who decide to merge, nor the ones who stay with the original party will face disqualification.

Various expert committees have recommended that rather than the Presiding Officer, the decision to disqualify a member should be made by the President (in case of MPs) or the Governor (in case of MLAs) on the advice of the Election Commission.[4] This would be similar to the process followed for disqualification in case the person holds an office of profit (i.e. the person holds an office under the central or state government which carries a remuneration, and has not been excluded in a list made by the legislature).

How has the law been interpreted by the Courts while deciding on related matters?

The Supreme Court has interpreted different provisions of the law.  We discuss some of these below.

The phrase ‘Voluntarily gives up his membership’ has a wider connotation than resignation

The law provides for a member to be disqualified if he ‘voluntarily gives up his membership’. However, the Supreme Court has interpreted that in the absence of a formal resignation by the member, the giving up of membership can be inferred by his conduct.[5] In other judgments, members who have publicly expressed opposition to their party or support for another party were deemed to have resigned.[6]

In the case of the two JD(U) MPs who were disqualified from Rajya Sabha on Monday, they were deemed to have ‘voluntarily given up their membership’ by engaging in anti-party activities which included criticizing the party on public forums on multiple occasions, and attending rallies organised by opposition parties in Bihar.[7]

Decision of the Presiding Officer is subject to judicial review 

The law initially stated that the decision of the Presiding Officer is not subject to judicial review. This condition was struck down by the Supreme Court in 1992, thereby allowing appeals against the Presiding Officer’s decision in the High Court and Supreme Court.[8] However, it held that there may not be any judicial intervention until the Presiding Officer gives his order.

In 2015, the Hyderabad High Court, refused to intervene after hearing a petition which alleged that there had been delay by the Telangana Assembly Speaker in acting against a member under the anti-defection law.[9]

Is there a time limit within which the Presiding Officer has to decide?

The law does not specify a time-period for the Presiding Officer to decide on a disqualification plea. Given that courts can intervene only after the Presiding Officer has decided on the matter, the petitioner seeking disqualification has no option but to wait for this decision to be made.

There have been several cases where the Courts have expressed concern about the unnecessary delay in deciding such petitions.[10] In some cases this delay in decision making has resulted in members, who have defected from their parties, continuing to be members of the House. There have also been instances where opposition members have been appointed ministers in the government while still retaining the membership of their original parties in the legislature.[11]

In recent years, opposition MLAs in some states, such as Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, have broken away in small groups gradually to join the ruling party. In some of these cases, more than 2/3rd of the opposition has defected to the ruling party.

In these scenarios, the MLAs were subject to disqualification while defecting to the ruling party in smaller groups.  However, it is not clear if they will still face disqualification if the Presiding Officer makes a decision after more than 2/3rd of the opposition has defected to the ruling party. The Telangana Speaker in March 2016 allowed the merger of the TDP Legislature Party in Telangana with the ruling TRS, citing that in total, 80% of the TDP MLAs (12 out of 15) had joined the TRS at the time of taking the decision.[12]

In Andhra Pradesh, legislators of the main opposition party recently boycotted the entire 12-day assembly session.  This boycott was in protest against the delay of over 18 months in action being taken against legislators of their party who have allegedly defected to the ruling party.[13] The Vice President, in his recent order disqualifying two JD(U) members stated that all such petitions should be decided by the Presiding Officers within a period of around three months.

Does the anti-defection law affect the ability of legislators to make decisions?

The anti-defection law seeks to provide a stable government by ensuring the legislators do not switch sides. However, this law also restricts a legislator from voting in line with his conscience, judgement and interests of his electorate. Such a situation impedes the oversight function of the legislature over the government, by ensuring that members vote based on the decisions taken by the party leadership, and not what their constituents would like them to vote for.

Political parties issue a direction to MPs on how to vote on most issues, irrespective of the nature of the issue. Several experts have suggested that the law should be valid only for those votes that determine the stability of the government (passage of the annual budget or no-confidence motions).[14]

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[1] Parliamentary Bulletin-II, December 4, 2017, http://164.100.47.5/newsite/bulletin2/Bull_No.aspx?number=57066 and http://164.100.47.5/newsite/bulletin2/Bull_No.aspx?number=57067.

[2] MLA Defection Politics Not New, Firstpost, March 13, 2017, http://www.firstpost.com/politics/bjp-forms-govt-in-goa-manipur-mla-defection-politics-not-new-telangana-ap-perfected-it-3331872.html.

[3] The Constitution (52nd Amendment) Act, 1985, http://indiacode.nic.in/coiweb/amend/amend52.htm.

[4] Report of the Committee on Electoral Reforms, 1990, http://lawmin.nic.in/ld/erreports/Dinesh%20Goswami%20Report%20on%20Electoral%20Reforms.pdf and the National Commission to review the working of the Constitution (NCRWC), 2002, http://lawmin.nic.in/ncrwc/ncrwcreport.htm.

[5] Ravi Naik vs Union of India, 1994, https://indiankanoon.org/doc/554446/.

[6] G.Viswanathan Vs. The Hon’ble Speaker, Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly, Madras& Another, 1996, https://indiankanoon.org/doc/1093980/  and Rajendra Singh Rana vs. Swami Prasad Maurya and Others, 2007, https://indiankanoon.org/doc/1620629/ and Parliamentary Bulletin-II, December 4, 2017, http://164.100.47.5/newsite/bulletin2/Bull_No.aspx?number=57066.

[7] Parliamentary Bulletin-II, December 4, 2017, http://164.100.47.5/newsite/bulletin2/Bull_No.aspx?number=57066.

[8] Kihoto Hollohon vs. Zachilhu and Others, 1992, https://indiankanoon.org/doc/1686885/.

[9] Sabotage of Anti-Defection Law in Telangana, 2015, https://www.epw.in/journal/2015/50/commentary/sabotage-anti-defection-law-telangana.html.

[10] Speaker, Haryana Vidhan Sabha Vs Kuldeep Bishnoi & Ors., 2012, https://indiankanoon.org/doc/45034065/  and Mayawati Vs Markandeya Chand & Ors., 1998, https://indiankanoon.org/doc/1801522/.

[11] Anti-Defecton Law Ignored, November 30, 2017, http://www.news18.com/news/politics/anti-defection-law-ignored-as-mlas-defect-to-tdp-trs-in-andhra-pradesh-and-telangana-1591319.html and It’s official Minister Talasani is still a TDP Member, March 27, 2015, http://www.thehansindia.com/posts/index/Telangana/2015-03-27/Its-Official-Minister-Talasani-is-still-a-TDP-member/140135.

[12] Telangana Legislative Assembly Bulletin, March 10, 2016, http://www.telanganalegislature.org.in/documents/10656/19317/Assembly+Buletin.PDF/a0d4bb52-9acf-494f-80e7-3a16e3480460;  12 TDP MLAs merged with TRS, March 11, 2016, http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/telangana/12-tdp-mlas-merged-with-trs/article8341018.ece.

[13] The line TD leaders dare not cross, December 4, http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-national/tp-andhrapradesh/the-line-td-leaders-dare-not-cross/article21257521.ece

[14] Report of the National Commission to review the working of the Constitution, 2002, http://lawmin.nic.in/ncrwc/ncrwcreport.htm, Report of the Committee on electoral reforms, 1990, http://lawmin.nic.in/ld/erreports/Dinesh%20Goswami%20Report%20on%20Electoral%20Reforms.pdf  and Law Commission (170th report), 1999, http://www.lawcommissionofindia.nic.in/lc170.htm.

Committees in state legislatures

October 31st, 2017 No comments

The Governor of Rajasthan promulgated two Ordinances amending the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 and Indian Penal Code, 1860 applicable in Rajasthan on September 7. The Ordinances restrain any investigation to be conducted against a judge, magistrate or public servant without prior sanction of the government. The decision to grant sanction will have to be taken within six months, failing which such sanction will be deemed to have been granted.  The Ordinances also restrain any person from reporting on the individual in question until sanction for investigation is granted. Two Bills replacing these Ordinances were introduced in the Rajasthan Assembly by the state Home Minister last week, on October 23.[i] After introduction, the Bills were referred to a 15-member select committee comprising of legislators from the state Assembly, and headed by the Home Minister of Rajasthan. This blog examines the role of committees and some of the practices observed in state legislatures.

Purpose of committees in legislatures

In India, state legislatures sit for 31 days a year on an average.*  Several Bills are passed within a few days of their introduction. One of the primary responsibilities of the legislature is to hold the executive accountable, and examine potential laws. Due to paucity of time, it is difficult for the members go through all the bills and discuss them in detail. To address this issue, various committees are set up in Parliament and state assemblies where smaller group of members examine Bills in detail, and allow for an informed debate in the legislature. Apart from scrutinising legislation, committees also examine budgetary allocations for various departments and other policies of the government.  These mini-legislatures provide a forum for law makers to develop expertise, engage with citizens and seek inputs from stakeholders. Since these committees consist of members from different parties, they provide a platform for building consensus on various issues.

Figure 1: Average sitting days in a year (2012-16)
Sitting days in a year 1
Sources: Website of various state assemblies as on October 30, 2017.

Types of committees

There are broadly three types of committees: (i) Financial committees: These scrutinise the expenditure of the government and recommend efficient ways of spending funds (example: Public Accounts Committee and Estimates Committee), (ii) Department-Related Standing Committees (DRSC): These scrutinise performance of departments under a ministry, (iii) Other committees: These deal with day-to-day functioning of the legislature (example: Business Advisory Committee, Papers Laid, Rules, etc.)  While there are 3 financial committees and 24 department related committees in Parliament, the number of committees in state legislatures varies.  For example, Kerala has 14 subject committees examining all departments, while Delhi has seven standing committees scrutinising performance of various departments. [ii],[iii] However, not all states have a provision for specific DRSCs or subject committees.

Similar to Parliament, state legislatures also have a provision to form a select committee to examine a particular legislation or a subject.  Such a committee is disbanded after it presents a report with its findings or recommendations. Several Bills in states are referred to select committees. However, the practice in some state legislatures with respect to select committees deviate from those in the Parliament.

Independence of select committee from the executive

The rules in several states provide for the minister in-charge piloting the bill to be an ex-officio member of the select committee. These states include Rajasthan, Assam, Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Telangana. Moreover, in Manipur, the rules provide for the minister to be chairman of the select committee. Note that the minister is part of the executive.  His inclusion in the committee may be in conflict with the committee’s role of scrutinising the functioning of the executive.

The practice of including ministers in committees is in contrast with the protocol followed in Parliament where a minister is not part of any DRSC or select committee. As committees of the legislature hold the executive accountable, having a minister on the select committee undermines the role of legislature as an oversight mechanism. A minister, as a representative of the executive being part of such committees may impede the ability of committees to effectively hold the executive accountable.

The two Bills introduced in the Rajasthan Assembly last week were referred to a select committee headed by the Home Minister of the state.  There have been several instances in other state legislatures where the minister introducing a bill was chairman of the select committee examining it. In Goa, a bill empowering the government to acquire land for development of public services is headed by the Revenue Minister of the state.[iv] Similarly, in Arunachal Pradesh, the select committee examining a bill for establishment of a university was headed by the Education Minister.[v] In Maharashtra as well, the Education Minister was chairman of the select committee scrutinising a bill granting greater autonomy to state universities.[vi]  For rigorous scrutiny of legislation, it is essential that the committees are independent of the executive.

Strengthening state legislature committees [vii]

The functioning of committees in states can be strengthened in various ways. Some of these include:

(i) Examination of Bills by assembly committees: In the absence of DRSCs, most bills are passed without detailed scrutiny while some bills are occasionally referred to select committees. In Parliament, bills pertaining to a certain ministry are referred to the respective DRSCs for scrutiny. To strengthen legislatures, DRSCs must examine all bills introduced in the assembly.

(ii) Scrutiny of budgets: Several states do not have DRSCs to examine budgetary proposals. Some states like Goa, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh have a budget committee to examine budget proposals. Post the 14th Finance commission, there is a higher devolution of funds to state governments from the centre.  With states increasingly spending more, it is necessary for them to have DRSCs that scrutinise the allocations and expenditures to various departments before they are approved by state assemblies.

 

*Based on the average sitting days for 18 state assemblies from 2012-2016.

[i] The Code of Criminal Procedure (Rajasthan Amendment) Bill, 2017 http://www.rajassembly.nic.in/BillsPdf/Bill39-2017.pdf;The Criminal Laws (Rajasthan Amendment) Bill, 2017 http://www.rajassembly.nic.in/BillsPdf/Bill38-2017.pdf.

[ii] List of subject committees http://niyamasabha.org/codes/comm.htm.

[iii] Delhi Legislative Assembly National Capital Territory Of Delhi Composition Of House Committees
2017 – 2018, http://delhiassembly.nic.in/Committee/Committee_2017_2018.htm.

[iv] The Goa Requisition and Acquisition of Property Bill, 2017 http://www.goavidhansabha.gov.in/uploads/bills/468_draft_BN18OF2017-AI-REQUI.pdf.

[v] The Kameng Professional and Technical University Arunachal Pradesh Bill 2017 http://www.assamtribune.com/scripts/detailsnew.asp?id=oct1717/oth057.

[vi] Maharashtra Public Universities Bill, 2016 http://mls.org.in/pdf/university_bill_english.pdf.

[vii] Strengthening State Legislatures http://www.prsindia.org/uploads/media/Conference%202016/Strengthening%20State%20Legislatures.pdf.

GST rates and anti-profiteering

May 24th, 2017 No comments

Over the last two months, the centre and over 15 states have passed laws to levy the Goods and Services Tax (GST).  Under these laws, tax rates recommended by the GST Council will be notified by the government.  The Council met in Srinagar last week to approve rates for various items.  Following this decision, the government has indicated that it may invoke provisions under the GST laws to monitor prices of goods and services.[1]  This will be done by setting up an anti-profiteering authority to ensure that reduction in tax rates under GST results in a fall in prices of goods and services.  In this context, we look at the rates approved by the GST Council, and the role of the proposed authority to ensure that prices of various items do not increase under GST.

Q. What are the tax rates that have been approved by the Council?

The Council has classified various items under five different tax rates: (i) 5%, (ii) 12%, (iii) 18%, (iv) 28%, and (v) 28% with an additional GST compensation cess (see Table 1).[2],[3],[4]  While tax rates for most of the goods and services have been approved by the Council, rates for some remaining items such as biscuits, textiles, footwear, and precious metals are expected to be decided in its next meeting on June 3, 2017.

Table 1: Tax rates for goods and services as approved by the GST Council

 

5% 12% 18% 28%

28% + Cess

Goods o Tea and Coffee

o Medicines

o Edible Oils

o Butter and Cheese

o Sanitary Napkins

o Mobile Phones

o Dry Fruits

o Tractors

o Agarbatti

o Toothpaste

o Soap Bars

o Computers

o Chocolate

o Shampoo

o Washing Machine

o Air Conditioner (AC)

o Aerated Drinks + 12% Cess

o Small Cars + 1% or 3% Cess (depending on petrol or diesel engine)

o Big Cars + 15% Cess

Services o Transport by rail

o Air transport by economy class

o Air transport by business class

o Non-AC Restaurant without liquor license

o Restaurant with liquor license

o AC Restaurant

o Other services not specified under any other rate (such as telecommunication and financial services)

o Entertainment (such as cinemas and theme parks)

o Gambling

o Restaurants in 5 star hotels

Source: GST Council Press Release, Central Board for Excise and Customs.

 

Q. Will GST apply on all goods and services?

No, certain items such as alcohol for human consumption, and petroleum products such as petrol, diesel and natural gas will be exempt under GST.  In addition to these, the GST Council has also classified certain items under the 0% tax rate, implying that GST will not be levied on them.  This list includes items of daily use such as wheat, rice, milk, eggs, fresh vegetables, meat and fish.  Some services such as education and healthcare will also be exempt under GST.

Q. How will GST impact prices of goods and services?

GST subsumes various indirect taxes and seeks to reduce cascading of taxes (tax on tax).  With greater efficiency in the supply of products, enhanced flow of tax credits, removal of border check posts, and changes in tax rates, prices of goods and services may come down.[5],[6],[7]  Mr Arun Jaitley recently stated that the Council has classified several items under lower tax rates, when compared to the current system.[8]

However, since some tax rates such as VAT currently vary across states, the real impact of GST rates on prices may become clear only after its roll-out.  For example, at present VAT rates on smart phones range between 5-15% across states.  Under GST they will be taxed at 12%.[9]  As a result while phones may become marginally cheaper in some states, their prices may go up in some others.

Q. What happens if tax rates come down but companies don’t reduce prices?

Few people such as the Union Revenue Secretary and Finance Ministers of Kerala and Jammu and Kashmir have expressed concerns that companies may not lower their prices despite a fall in tax rates, in order to increase their profits.  The Revenue Secretary also stated that the government had received reports of few businesses increasing their product prices in anticipation of GST.[10]

To take care of such cases, the GST laws contain a provision which allows the centre to constitute an anti-profiteering authority.  The authority will ensure that a reduction in tax rates under GST is passed on to the consumers.  Specific powers and functions of the authority will be specified by the GST Council.[11],[12]

Q. Are there any existing mechanisms to regulate pricing of products?

Various laws have been enacted over the years to control the pricing of essential items, or check for unfair market practices.  For example, the Essential Commodities Act, 1955 controls the price of certain necessary items such as medicines, food items and fertilisers.[13]

Parliament has also created statutory authorities like the Competition Commission of India to check against unfair trade practices such as cartelisation by businesses to inflate prices of goods.  Regulators, such as the National Pharmaceutical Pricing Authority, are also responsible for regulating prices for items in their sectors.

Q. Could there be some challenges in implementing this mechanism?

To fulfil its mandate, the anti-profiteering authority could get involved in determining prices of various items.  This may even require going through the balance sheets and finances of various companies.  Some argue that this is against the idea of prices being determined by market forces of demand and supply.[14]

Another aspect to consider here is that the price of items is dependent on a combination of factors, in addition to applicable taxes.  These include the cost of raw material, technology used by businesses, distribution channels, or competition in the market.

Imagine a case where the GST rate on a category of cars has come down from the current levels, but rising global prices of raw material such as steel have forced a manufacturer to increase prices.  Given the mandate of the authority to ensure passing of lower tax rates to consumers, will it also consider the impact of rising input costs deciding the price of an item?  Since factor costs keep fluctuating, in some cases the authority may find it difficult to evaluate the pricing decision of a business.

Q. Have other countries tried to introduce similar anti-profiteering frameworks?

Some countries such as Malaysia have in the past introduced laws to check if companies were making unreasonably high profits after the roll-out of GST.[15]  While the law was supposed to remain in force for a limited period, the deadline has been extended a few times.  In Australia, during the roll out of GST in the early 2000s, an existing authority was entrusted with the role of taking action against businesses that unreasonably increased prices.[16]  The authority also put in place a strategy to raise consumer awareness about the available recourse in cases of price exploitation.

With rates for various items being approved, and the government considering a mechanism to ensure that any inflationary impact is minimised, the focus now shifts to the implementation of GST.  This includes operationalisation of the GST Network, and notification of rules relating to registration under GST and payment of tax.  The weeks ahead will be crucial for the authorities and various taxpayers in the country to ensure that GST is successfully rolled out from July 1, 2017.

[1] After fixing rates, GST Council to now focus on price behaviour of companies, The Hindustan Times, Ma 22, 2017, http://www.hindustantimes.com/business-news/after-fixing-rates-gst-council-to-now-focus-on-price-behaviour-of-companies/story-fRsAFsfEofPxMe2IXnXIMN.html.

[2] GST Rate Schedule for Goods, Central Board of Excise and Customs, GST Council, May 18, 2017, http://www.cbec.gov.in/resources//htdocs-cbec/gst/chapter-wise-rate-wise-gst-schedule-18.05.2017.pdf.

[3] GST Compensation Cess Rates for different supplies, GST Council, Central Board of Excise and Customs, May 18, 2017, http://www.cbec.gov.in/resources//htdocs-cbec/gst/gst-compensation-cess-rates-18.05.2017.pdf.

[4] Schedule of GST Rates for Services as approved by GST Council, GST Council, Central Board of Excise and Customs, May 19, 2017, http://www.cbec.gov.in/resources//htdocs-cbec/gst/Schedule%20of%20GST%20rates%20for%20services.pdf.

[5] GST rate impact: Here’s how the new tax can carry a greater punch, The Financial Express, May 24, 2017, http://www.financialexpress.com/economy/gst-rate-impact-heres-how-the-new-tax-can-carry-a-greater-punch/682762/.

[6] “So far, the GST Council has got it right”, The Hindu Business Line, May 22, 2017, http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/opinion/the-gst-council-has-got-it-right/article9709906.ece.

[7] “GST to cut inflation by 2%, create buoyancy in economy: Hasmukh Adhia”, The Times of India, May 21, 2017, http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/business/india-business/gst-to-cut-inflation-by-2-create-buoyancy-in-economy-hasmukh-adhia/articleshow/58772448.cms.

[8] GST rate: New tax to reduce prices of most goods, from milk, coal to FMCG goods, The Financial Express, May 19, 2017, http://www.financialexpress.com/economy/gst-rate-new-tax-to-reduce-prices-of-most-goods-from-milk-coal-to-fmcg-goods/675722/.

[9] “Goods and Services Tax (GST) will lead to lower tax burden in several commodities including packaged cement, Medicaments, Smart phones, and medical devices, including surgical instruments”, Press Information Bureau, Ministry of Finance, May 23, 2017.

[10] “GST Townhall: Main concern is consumer education, says Adhia”, Live Mint, May 24, 2017.

[11] The Central Goods and Services Tax Act, 2017, http://www.prsindia.org/uploads/media/GST,%202017/Central%20GST%20Act,%202017.pdf.

[12] Rajasthan Goods and Services Tax Bill, 2017; Madhya Pradesh Goods and Services Tax Bill, 2017; Uttar Pradesh Goods and Services Tax Bill, 2017; Maharashtra Goods and Services Tax Bill, 2017.

[13] The Essential Commodities Act, 1955.

[14] “GST rollout: Anti-profiteering law could be the new face of tax terror”, The Financial Express, May 23, 2017, http://www.financialexpress.com/opinion/gst-rollout-anti-profiteering-law-could-be-the-new-face-of-tax-terror/680850/.

[15] Price Control Anti-Profiteering Act 2011, Malaysia.

[16] ACCC oversight of pricing responses to the introduction of the new tax system, Australia Competition and Consumer Commission, January 2003, https://www.accc.gov.au/system/files/GST%20final%20report.pdf.

The Bihar Prohibition and Excise Bill, 2016: An analysis

August 1st, 2016 No comments

The Bihar Prohibition and Excise Bill, 2016 was introduced and debated in the Bihar Legislative Assembly today.  The Bill creates a framework for the levy of excise duty and imposes a prohibition on alcohol in Bihar.  In this context, we examine key provisions and some issues related to the Bill.

Prohibition on the manufacture, sale, storage and consumption of alcohol was imposed in Bihar earlier in 2016, by amending the Bihar Excise Act, 1915.  The Bill replaces the 1915 Act and the Bihar Prohibition Act, 1938.  Key features of the Bill include:

  • Prohibition: The Bill imposes a prohibition on the manufacture, bottling, distribution, transportation, collection, storage, possession, sale and consumption of alcohol or any other intoxicant specified by the state government.  However, it also allows the state government to renew existing licenses, or allow any state owned company to undertake any of these activities (such as manufacture, distribution, etc.).
  • Excise revenue: The Bill expects to generate revenue from excise by levying (i) excise duty on import, export, manufacture, etc. of alcohol, (ii) license fee on establishing any manufactory, distillery, brewery, etc., (iii) fee on alcohol transit through Bihar, and (iv) fee on movement of alcohol within Bihar or import and export from Bihar to other states, among others.
  • Excise Intelligence Bureau: The Bill provides for the creation of an Excise Intelligence Bureau, which will be responsible for collecting, maintaining and disseminating information related to excise offences.  It will be headed by the Excise Commissioner.
  • Penalties and Offences: The Bill provides penalties for various offences committed under its provisions.  These offences include consuming alcohol, possession or having knowledge about possession of alcohol and mixing noxious substances with alcohol.  In addition, the Bill provides that if any person is being prosecuted, he shall be presumed to be guilty until his innocence is proven.
  • The Bill also allows a Collector to impose a collective fine on a group of people, or residents of a particular village, if these people are repeat offenders.

Process to be followed for offences

The Bill outlines the following process to be followed in case an offence is committed:

  • If a person is found to have committed any offence under the Bill (such as consumption, storage or possession of alcohol), any authorised person (such as the District Collector, Excise Officer, and Superintendent of Police) may take action against the offender.
  • The Bill allows an authorised person to arrest the offender without a warrant.  Alcohol, any material or conveyance mode used for the offence may be confiscated or destroyed by the authorised person.  In addition, the premises where alcohol is found, or any place where it is being sold, may be sealed.
  • Under the Bill, the offender will be tried by a Sessions Court, or a special court set up by the state.  The offender may appeal against the verdict of the special court in the High Court.

Some issues that need to be considered

  • Family members and occupants as offenders: For illegal manufacture, possession or consumption of alcohol by a person, the Bill holds the following people criminally liable:
    1. Family members of the person (in case of illegal possession of alcohol). Family means husband, wife and their dependent children.
    2. Owner and occupants of a land or a building, where such illegal acts are taking place.

The Bill presumes that the family members, owner and occupants of the building or land ought to have known that an illegal act is taking place.  In all such cases, the Bill prescribes a punishment of at least 10 years of imprisonment, and a fine of at least one lakh rupees.

These provisions may violate Article 14 and Article 21 of the Indian Constitution.  Article 14 of the Constitution provides that no person will be denied equality before law.  This protects individuals from any arbitrary actions of the state.[1]  It may be argued that imposing criminal liability on (i) family members and (ii) owner or occupants of the building, for the action of another person is arbitrary in nature.

Article 21 of the Constitution states that no person can be deprived of their life and personal liberty, except according to procedure established by law.  Courts have interpreted this to mean that any procedure established by law should be fair and reasonable.[2]  It needs to be examined whether presuming that (i) family members of an offender, and (ii) owner or occupant of the building knew about the offence, and making them criminally liable, is reasonable.

  • Bar on Jurisdiction for confiscated items: The Bill allows for the confiscation of: (i) materials used for manufacturing alcohol, or (ii) conveyance modes if they are used for committing an offence (such as animal carts, vessels).  It provides that no court shall have the power to pass an order with regard to the confiscated property.  It is unclear what judicial recourse will be available for an aggrieved person.
  • Offences under the Bill: The Bill provides that actions such as manufacturing, possession or consumption of alcohol will attract an imprisonment of at least 10 years with a fine of at least one lakh rupees.  One may question if the term of imprisonment is in proportion to the offence committed under the Bill.

Note that under the Indian Penal Code, 1860 an imprisonment at least 10 years is attracted in crimes such as use of acid to cause injury, or trafficking of a minor.  Other states where a prohibition on alcohol is imposed provide for a lower imprisonment term for such offences.  These include Gujarat (at least seven years) and Nagaland (maximum three years).[3]

Note:  At the time of publishing this blog, the Bill was being debated in the Legislative Assembly.

[1] E.P. Royappa v State of Tamil Nadu, Supreme Court, Writ Petition No. 284 of 1972, November 23, 1973.

[2] Maneka Gandhi v Union of India, AIR 1978 SC 597.

[3] Gujarat Prohibition Act, 1949, http://www.prohibition-excise.gujarat.gov.in/Upload/06asasas_pne_kaydaao_niyamo_1.pdf.