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Archive for October, 2011

Draft Policies on Telecom, Electronics and Information Technology: Some Issues

October 25th, 2011 1 comment

The Ministry of Communications and Information Technology released three draft policies on telecommunications, information technology and electronics.  The Ministry has invited comments on the draft policies, which may be sent to epolicy2011@mit.gov.in.

These policies have the common goal of increasing revenues and increasing global market share.  However, the policies may be incompatible with the Direct Taxes Code Bill, 2010 (DTC) and India’s international obligations under the General Agreement on Tariff and Trade (GATT).  Below we discuss these policies within the scope of the GATT and the DTC.

The draft National Information Technology Policy, 2011 aims to formulate a fiscal structure to attract investment in the IT industry in tier II and III cities.  It also seeks to prepare SMEs for a competitive environment by providing fiscal benefits.  Similarly, the draft National Electronics Policy provides for fiscal incentives in manufacturing on account of infrastructure gaps relating to power, transportation etc. and to mitigate the relatively high cost of finance.  The draft policy also provides preferential market access for domestically manufactured or designed electronic products including mobile devices and SIM cards.  The draft National Telecom Policy seeks to provide fiscal incentives required by indigenous manufacturers of telecom products and R&D institutions.

The theme of the DTC was to remove distortions arising from incentives.  The detailed note annexed to the Bill states that “tax incentives are inefficient, distorting, iniquitous, impose greater compliance burden on the tax payer and on the administration, result in loss of revenue, create special interest groups, add to the complexity of the tax laws, and encourage tax avoidance and rent seeking behaviour.”  It further notes that the Parliamentary Standing Committee on finance had recommended removal of exemptions other than in exceptional cases.  As per the Department of Revenue, tax holidays should only be given in businesses with extremely high risks, lumpy investments and lengthy gestation periods.  The DTC also removes location-based incentives as these “lead to diversion of resources to areas where there is no comparative advantage”.  These also lead to tax evasion and avoidance, and huge administrative costs.  The proposals to provide fiscal incentives in all three draft policies contradict the direction of the direct tax reforms.

Article 3 of GATT provides that foreign products should be accorded the same treatment accorded to similar domestic products in respect of all laws, regulations and requirements affecting their internal sale, offering for sale, purchase, transportation, distribution and use.  The provisions in the draft electronics policy to secure preferential market access to products manufactured in India may contravene this Article.

In granting such fiscal and trade incentives, the policies may be contrary to the approach adopted in the DTC and India’s obligations under the GATT.  These draft policies will have to be reconciled with tax reforms and trade obligations.

The Gujarat Lokayukta case

October 11th, 2011 5 comments

The Gujarat High Court is hearing an important case related to the appointment of the Lokayukta in Gujarat.  The issue is whether the Governor can appoint the Lokayukta at his discretion or whether appointment can be made only upon obtaining the aid and advice of the Council of Ministers led by the Chief Minister.

During the period 2006-2010, the Gujarat state government submitted names of two prospective appointees for the post of Lokayukta to the Governor.  But no appointment was made during this period.  On August 26, 2011 the Governor appointed retired judge R.A.Mehta as Lokayukta, whose name was not among those submitted by the state government.  The Gujarat state government moved the High Court to quash the appointment on the ground that the Governor made the appointment without the aid and advice of the Council of Ministers led by the Chief Minister.

Section 3 of the Gujarat Lokayukta Act, provides in part that “the Governor shall by warrant under his hand and seal, appoint a person to be known as Lokayukta”.  The Governor acted under this section to make the appointment of Lokayukta.  However, the state government has argued that section 3 has to be understood in light of Article 163(1) of the Constitution.  Article 163(1) provides that the Governor shall be aided and advised in the exercise of his functions by a Council of Ministers with the Chief Minister at the head. Thus, as per this line of argument, the Governor violated the provision of Article 163(1) when she failed to take the aid and advice of the Council of Ministers led by the Chief Minister before exercising the function of appointing the Lokayukta.

At the time of writing this post, news reports suggested that the two judges hearing the case are divided over the issue.  It remains to be seen whether this issue will be referred to a larger bench.  The outcome of this case could have wider implications on the constitutional role of governors if it sets guideposts on the extent to which they act independent of the advice of the council of ministers.

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Legislature versus Judiciary

October 4th, 2011 1 comment

The doctrine of separation of powers implies that each pillar of democracy – the executive, legislature and the judiciary – perform separate functions and act as separate entities.  The executive is vested with the power to make policy decisions and implement laws.  The legislature is empowered to issue enactments.  The judiciary is responsible for adjudicating disputes.  The doctrine is a part of the basic structure of the Indian Constitution[1] even though it is not specifically mentioned in its text.  Thus, no law may be passed and no amendment may be made to the Constitution deviating from the doctrine.  Different agencies impose checks and balances upon each other but may not transgress upon each other’s functions.  Thus, the judiciary exercises judicial review over executive and legislative action, and the legislature reviews the functioning of the executive.

There have been some cases where the courts have issued laws and policy related orders through their judgements.  These include the Vishakha case where guidelines on sexual harassment were issued by the Supreme Court, the order of the Court directing the Centre to distribute food grains (2010) and the appointment of the Special Investigation Team to replace the High Level Committee established by the Centre for investigating black money deposits in Swiss Banks.

In 1983 when Justice Bhagwati introduced public interest litigation in India, Justice Pathak in the same judgement warned against the “temptation of crossing into territory which properly pertains to the Legislature or to the Executive Government”[2].  Justice Katju in 2007 noted that, “Courts cannot create rights where none exist nor can they go on making orders which are incapable of enforcement or violative of other laws or settled legal principles. With a view to see that judicial activism does not become judicial adventurism the courts must act with caution and proper restraint. It needs to be remembered that courts cannot run the government. The judiciary should act only as an alarm bell; it should ensure that the executive has become alive to perform its duties.” [3]

While there has been some discussion on the issue of activism by the judiciary, it must be noted that there are also instances of the legislature using its law making powers to reverse the outcome of some  judgements.  (M.J. Antony has referred to a few in his article in the Business Standard here.)  We discuss below some recent instances of the legislature overturning judicial pronouncements by passing laws with retrospective effect.

On September 7, 2011 the Parliament passed the Customs Amendment and Validation Bill, 2011 which retrospectively validates all duties imposed and actions taken by certain customs officials who were not authorized under the Customs Act to do the stated acts.  Some of the duties imposed were in fact challenged before the Supreme Court in Commissioner of Customs vs. Sayed Ali in 2011[4].  The Supreme Court struck down the levy of duties since these were imposed by unauthorised officials.  By passing the Customs Bill, 2011 the Parliament circumvented the judgement and amended the Act to authorize certain officials to levy duties retrospectively, even those that had been held to be illegal by the SC.

Another instance of the legislature overriding the decision of the Supreme Court was seen in the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Ordinance, 2009 which was passed into an Act.  The Supreme Court had ruled that the price at which the Centre shall buy sugar from the mill shall include the statutory minimum price (SMP) and an additional amount of profits that the mills share with farmers.[5] The Amendment allowed the Centre to pay a fair and remunerative price (FRP) instead of the SMP.  It also did away with the requirement to pay the additional amount.  The amendment applied to all transactions for purchase of sugar by the Centre since 1974.  In effect, the amendment overruled the Court decision.

The executive tried to sidestep the Apex Court decision through the Enemy Property (Amendment and Validation) Ordinance, 2010.  The Court had issued a writ to the Custodian of Enemy Property to return possession of certain properties to the legal heir of the owner.   Subsequently the Executive issued an Ordinance under which all properties that were divested from the Custodian in favour of legal heirs by a Court order were reverted to him.  The Ordinance lapsed and a Bill was introduced in the Parliament.  The Bill is currently being examined by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Home Affairs.

These examples highlight some instances where the legislature has acted to reverse judicial pronouncements.  The judiciary has also acted in several instances in the grey areas separating its role from that of the executive and the legislature.  The doctrine of separation of powers is not codified in the Indian constitution.  Indeed, it may be difficult to draw a strict line demarcating the separation.  However, it may be necessary for each pillar of the State to evolve a healthy convention that respects the domain of the others.

 


[1] Keshavananda Bharti vs. State of Kerala  AIR 1973 SC 1461

[2] Bandhua Mukti Morcha  AIR 1984 SC 802

[3] Aravali Golf Club vs. Chander Hass  (2008) 1 SCC (L&S) 289

[4] Supreme Court in Commissioner of Customs vs. Sayed Ali (2011) 3 SCC 537

[5] Mahalakshmi Mills vs. Union of India (2009) 16 SCC 569

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