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Archive for March, 2015

A background to Section 66A of the IT Act, 2000

March 24th, 2015 3 comments

A few minutes ago, the Supreme Court delivered a  judgement striking down Section 66 A of the Information Technology Act, 2000.  This was in response to a PIL that challenged the constitutionality of this provision.  In light of this, we present a background to Section 66 A and the recent developments leading up to its challenge before the Court. 

What does the Information Technology Act, 2000 provide for?

The Information Technology (IT) Act, 2000 provides for legal recognition for transactions through electronic communication, also known as e-commerce.  The Act also penalizes various forms of cyber crime.  The Act was amended in 2009 to insert a new section, Section 66A which was said to address cases of cyber crime with the advent of technology and the internet.

What does Section 66(A) of the IT Act say?

Section 66(A) of the Act criminalises the sending of offensive messages through a computer or other communication devices.  Under this provision, any person who by means of a computer or communication device sends any information that is:

  1. grossly offensive;
  2. false and meant for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult, injury, criminal intimidation, enmity, hatred or ill will;
  3. meant to deceive or mislead the recipient about the origin of such messages, etc, shall be punishable with imprisonment up to three years and with fine

Over the past few years, incidents related to comments,  sharing of information, or thoughts expressed by an individual to a wider audience on the internet have attracted criminal penalties under Section 66(A).  This has led to discussion and debate on the ambit of the Section and its applicability to such actions.

What have been the major developments in context of this Section?

In the recent past, a few arrests were made under Section 66(A) on the basis of social media posts directed at notable personalities, including politicians.  These  were alleged to be offensive in nature.  In November 2012, there were various reports of alleged misuse of the law, and the penalties imposed were said to be disproportionate to the offence. 

Thereafter, a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) was filed in the Supreme Court, challenging this provision on grounds of unconstitutionality.  It was said to impinge upon the freedom of speech and expression guaranteed by Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution.

How has the government responded so far?

Subsequently, the central government issued guidelines for the purposes of Section 66(A).  These guidelines clarified that prior approval of the Deputy Commissioner or Inspector General of Police was required before a police officer or police station could register a complaint under Section 66(A).  In May 2013, the Supreme Court (in relation to the above PIL) also passed an order saying that such approval was necessary before any arrest is to be made.  Since matters related to police and public order are dealt with by respective state governments, a Supreme Court order was required for these guidelines to be applicable across the country.  However, no changes have been made to Section 66 A itself. 

Has there been any legislative movement with regard to Section 66(A)?

A Private Member Bill was introduced in Lok Sabha in 2013 to amend Section 66(A) of the IT Act.  The Statement of Objects and Reasons of the Bill stated that most of the offences that Section 66(A) dealt with were already covered by the Indian Penal Code (IPC), 1860. This had resulted in dual penalties for the same offence.  According to the Bill, there were also inconsistencies between the two laws in relation to the duration of imprisonment for the same offence.  The offence of threatening someone with injury through email attracts imprisonment of two years under the IPC and three years under the IT Act.  The Bill was eventually withdrawn.

In the same year, a Private Members resolution was also moved in Parliament.  The resolution proposed to make four changes: (i) bring Section 66(A) in line with the Fundamental Rights of the Constitution; (ii) restrict the application of the provision to communication between two persons; (iii) precisely define the offence covered; and (iv) reduce the penalty and make the offence a non-cognizable one (which means no arrest could be made without a court order).  However, the resolution was also withdrawn.

Meanwhile, how has the PIL proceeded?

According to news reports, the Supreme Court  in February, 2015 had stated that the constitutional validity of the provision would be tested, in relation to the PIL before it.  The government argued that they were open to amend/change the provision as the intention was not to suppress freedom of speech and expression, but only deal with cyber crime. 

The issues being examined by the Court relate to the powers of the police to decide what is abusive, causes annoyance, etc,. instead of the examination of the offence by the judiciary .  This is pertinent because this offence is a cognizable one, attracting a penalty of at least three years imprisonment.  The law is also said to be ambiguous on the issue of what would constitute information that is “grossly offensive,” as no guidelines have been provided for the same.  This lack of clarity could lead to increased litigation.

The judgement is not available in the public domain yet. It remains to be seen on what the reasoning of the Supreme Court was, in its decision to strike down Section 66A, today.

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Land Acquisition: An overview of proposed amendments to the law

March 16th, 2015 4 comments

On March 10, Lok Sabha passed a Bill to amend the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013.  The Bill is now pending in Rajya Sabha.  This blog briefly outlines the context and the major legislative changes to the land acquisition law.

I. Context

Land acquisition, unlike the purchase of land, is the forcible take-over of privately owned land by the government.  Land is acquired for projects which serve a ‘public purpose’.  These include government projects, public-private partnership projects, and private projects.  Currently, what qualifies as ‘public purpose’ has been defined to include defence projects, infrastructure projects, and projects related to housing for the poor, among others.

Till 2014, the Land Acquisition Act, 1894 regulated the process of land acquisition.  While the 1894 Act provided compensation to land owners, it did not provide for rehabilitation and resettlement (R&R) to displaced families.  These were some of the reasons provided by the government to justify the need for a new legislation to regulate the process of land acquisition.  Additionally, the Supreme Court had also pointed out issues with determination of fair compensation, and what constitutes public purpose, etc., in the 1894 Act.  To this end, the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013 was passed by Parliament, in 2013.

II. Current legislative framework for land acquisition

The 2013 Act brought in several changes to the process of land acquisition in the country.   Firstly, it increased the compensation provided to land owners, from 1.3 times the price of land to 2 times the price of land in urban areas, and 2-4 times the price of land in rural areas.  Secondly, unlike the earlier Act which did not provide rehabilitation and resettlement, the 2013 Act provided R&R to land owners as well as those families which did not own land, but were dependent on the land for their livelihood.  The Act permits states to provide higher compensation and R&R.

Thirdly, unlike the previous Act, it mandated that a Social Impact Assessment be conducted for all projects, except those for which land was required urgently.  An SIA assesses certain aspects of the acquisition such as whether the project serves a public purpose, whether the minimum area that is required is being acquired, and the social impact of the acquisition.  Fourthly, it also mandated that the consent of 80% of land owners be obtained for private projects, and the consent of 70% of land owners be obtained for public-private partnership projects.  However, consent of land owners is not required for government projects.   The 2013 Act also made certain other changes to the process of land acquisition, including prohibiting the acquisition of irrigated multi-cropped land, except in certain cases where the limit may be specified by the government.

III. Promulgation of an Ordinance to amend the 2013 Act

In addition to the 2013 Act, there are certain other laws which govern land acquisition in particular sectors, such as the National Highways Act, 1956 and the Railways Act, 1989.  The 2013 Act required that the compensation and R&R provisions of 13 such laws be brought in consonance with it, within a year of its enactment, (that is, by January 1, 2015) through a notification.  Since this was not done by the required date, the government issued an Ordinance (as Parliament was not in session) to extend the compensation and R&R provisions of the 2013 Act to these 13 laws.  However, the Ordinance also made other changes to the 2013 Act.

The Ordinance was promulgated on December 31, 2014 and will lapse on April 5, 2015 if not passed as a law by Parliament.  Thus, the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (Amendment) Bill, 2015 has been introduced in Parliament to replace the Ordinance.  The Bill has been passed by Lok Sabha, with certain changes, and is pending in Rajya Sabha.  The next section outlines the major changes the Bill (as passed by Lok Sabha) proposes to make to 2013 Act.

IV. Changes proposed by the 2015 Bill to the 2013 Act

Some of the major changes proposed by the 2015 Bill (as passed by Lok Sabha) relate to provisions such as obtaining the consent of land owners; conducting an SIA; return of unutilised land; inclusion of private entities; and commission of offences by the government.

Certain exemptions for five categories of projects: As mentioned above, the 2013 Act requires that the consent of 80% of land owners is obtained when land is acquired for private projects, and the consent of 70% of land owners is obtained when land is acquired for public-private partnership projects.  The Bill exempts five categories of projects from this provision of the 2013 Act.  These five categories are: (i) defence, (ii) rural infrastructure, (iii) affordable housing, (iv) industrial corridors (set up by the government/government undertakings, up to 1 km on either side of the road/railway), and (v) infrastructure projects.

The Bill also allows the government to exempt these five categories of projects from: (i) the requirement of a Social Impact Assessment, and (ii) the limits that apply for acquisition of irrigated multi-cropped land, through issuing a notification.  Before issuing this notification, the government must ensure that the extent of land being acquired is in keeping with the minimum land required for such a project.

The government has stated that these exemptions are being made in order to expedite the process of land acquisition in these specific areas.  However, the opponents of the Bill have pointed out that these five exempted categories could cover a majority of projects for which land can be acquired, and consent and SIA will not apply for these projects.

Return of unutilised land: Secondly, the Bill changes the time period after which unutilised, acquired land must be returned.  The 2013 Act states that if land acquired under it remains unutilised for five years, it must be returned to the original owners or the land bank.  The Bill changes this to state that the period after which unutilised land will need to be returned will be the later of: (i) five years, or (ii) any period specified at the time of setting up the project.

Acquisition of land for private entities: Under the 2013 Act, as mentioned above, land can be acquired for the government, a public-private partnership, or a private company, if the acquisition serves a public purpose.  The third major change the Bill seeks to make is that it changes the term ‘private company’ to ‘private entity’.  This implies that land may now be acquired for a proprietorship, partnership, corporation, non-profit organisation, or other entity, in addition to a private company, if the project serves a public purpose.

Offences by the government: Fourthly, under the 2013 Act, if an offence is committed by a government department, the head of the department will be held guilty unless he can show that he had exercised due diligence to prevent the commission of the offence.  The Bill removes this section.  It adds a provision to state that if an offence is committed by a government employee, he can be prosecuted only with the prior sanction of the government.

Acquisition of land for private hospitals and educational institutions: While the 2013 Act excluded acquisition of land for private hospitals and private educational institutions, the Bill sought to include these two within its scope.  However, the Lok Sabha removed this provision of the Bill.  Thus, in its present form, the Bill does not include the acquisition of land for private hospitals and private educational institutions.

Other changes proposed in Lok Sabha: In addition to removing social infrastructure from one of the five exempted categories of projects, clarifying the definition of industrial corridors, and removing the provision related to acquisition for private hospitals and private educational institutions, the Lok Sabha made a few other changes to the Bill, prior to passing it.  These include: (i) employment must be provided to ‘one member of an affected family of farm labour’ as a part of the R&R award, in addition to the current provision which specifies that one member of an affected family must be provided employment as a part of R&R; (ii) hearings of the Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Authority to address grievances related to compensation be held in the district where land is being acquired; and (iii) a survey of wasteland must be conducted and records of these land must be maintained.

For more details on the 2015 Bill, see the PRS Bill page, here.

A version of this blog appeared on rediff.com on February 27, 2015. 

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Coal Block Allocations and the 2015 Bill

March 7th, 2015 5 comments

Earlier this week, Lok Sabha passed the Bill that provides for the allocation of coal mines that were cancelled by the Supreme Court last year.  In light of this development, this post looks at the issues surrounding coal block allocations and what the 2015 Bill seeks to achieve.

In September 2014, the Supreme Court cancelled the allocations of 204 coal blocks.  Following the Supreme Court judgement, in October 2014, the government promulgated the Coal Mines (Special Provisions) Ordinance, 2014 for the allocation of the cancelled coal mines.  The Ordinance, which was replaced by the Coal Mines (Special Provisions) Bill, 2014, could not be passed by Parliament in the last winter session, and lapsed. The government then promulgated the Coal Mines (Special Provisions) Second Ordinance, 2014 on December 26, 2014.  The Coal Mines (Special Provisions) Bill, 2015 replaces the second Ordinance and was passed by Lok Sabha on March 4, 2015.

Why is coal considered relevant?

Coal mining in India has primarily been driven by the need for energy domestically.  About 55% of the current commercial energy use is met by coal.  The power sector is the major consumer of coal, using about 80% of domestically produced coal.

As of April 1, 2014, India is estimated to have a cumulative total of 301.56 billion tonnes of coal reserves up to a depth of 1200 meters.  Coal deposits are mainly located in Jharkhand, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra.

How is coal regulated?

The Ministry of Coal has the overall responsibility of managing coal reserves in the country.  Coal India Limited, established in 1975, is a public sector undertaking, which looks at the production and marketing of coal in India.  Currently, the sector is regulated by the ministry’s Coal Controller’s Organization.

The Coal Mines (Nationalisation) Act, 1973 (CMN Act) is the primary legislation determining the eligibility for coal mining in India.  The CMN Act allows private Indian companies to mine coal only for captive use.  Captive mining is the coal mined for a specific end-use by the mine owner, but not for open sale in the market.  End-uses currently allowed under the CMN Act include iron and steel production, generation of power, cement production and coal washing.  The central government may notify additional end-uses.

How were coal blocks allocated so far?

Till 1993, there were no specific criteria for the allocation of captive coal blocks.  Captive mining for coal was allowed in 1993 by amendments to the CMN Act.  In 1993, a Screening Committee was set up by the Ministry of Coal to provide recommendations on allocations for captive coal mines.  All allocations to private companies were made through the Screening Committee.  For government companies, allocations for captive mining were made directly by the ministry.  Certain coal blocks were allocated by the Ministry of Power for Ultra Mega Power Projects (UMPP) through tariff based competitive bidding (bidding for coal based on the tariff at which power is sold).  Between 1993 and 2011, 218 coal blocks were allocated to both public and private companies under the CMN Act.

What did the 2014 Supreme Court judgement do?

In August 2012, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India released a report on the coal block allocations. CAG recommended that the allocation process should be made more transparent and objective, and done through competitive bidding.

Following this report, in September 2012, a Public Interest Litigation matter was filed in the Supreme Court against the coal block allocations.  The petition sought to cancel the allotment of the coal blocks in public interest on grounds that it was arbitrary, illegal and unconstitutional.

In September 2014, the Supreme Court declared all allocations of coal blocks, made through the Screening Committee and through Government Dispensation route since 1993, as illegal.  It cancelled the allocation of 204 out of 218 coal blocks.  The allocations were deemed illegal on the grounds that: (i) the allocation procedure followed by the Screening Committee was arbitrary, and (ii) no objective criterion was used to determine the selection of companies.  Further, the allocation procedure was held to be impermissible under the CMN Act.

Among the 218 coal blocks, 40 were under production and six were ready to start production.  Of the 40 blocks under production, 37 were cancelled and of the six ready to produce blocks, five were cancelled.  However, the allocation to Ultra Mega Power Projects, which was done via competitive bidding for lowest tariffs, was not declared illegal.

What does the 2015 Bill seek to do?

Following the cancellation of the coal blocks, concerns were raised about further shortage in the supply of coal, resulting in more power supply disruptions.  The 2015 Bill primarily seeks to allocate the coal mines that were declared illegal by the Supreme Court.  It provides details for the auction process, compensation for the prior allottees, the process for transfer of mines and details of authorities that would conduct the auction.  In December 2014, the ministry notified the Coal Mines (Special Provisions) Rules, 2014.  The Rules provide further guidelines in relation to the eligibility and compensation for prior allottees.

How is the allocation of coal blocks to be carried out through the 2015 Bill?

The Bill creates three categories of mines, Schedule I, II and III.  Schedule I consists of all the 204 mines that were cancelled by the Supreme Court.  Of these mines, Schedule II consists of all the 42 mines that are under production and Schedule III consists of 32 mines that have a specified end-use such as power, iron and steel, cement and coal washing.

Schedule I mines can be allocated by way of either public auction or allocation.  For the public auction route any government, private or joint venture company can bid for the coal blocks.  They can use the coal mined from these blocks for their own consumption, sale or for any other purpose as specified in their mining lease.  The government may also choose to allot Schedule I mines to any government company or any company that was awarded a power plant project through competitive bidding.  In such a case, a government company can use the coal mined for own consumption or sale.  However, the Bill does not provide clarity on the purpose for which private companies can use the coal.

Schedule II and III mines are to be allocated by way of public auction, and the auctions have to be completed by March 31, 2015.  Any government company, private company or a joint venture with a specified end-use is eligible to bid for these mines.

In addition, the Bill also provides details on authorities that would conduct the auction and allotment and the compensation for prior allottees.  Prior allottees are not eligible to participate in the auction process if: (i) they have not paid the additional levy imposed by the Supreme Court; or (ii) if they are convicted of an offence related to coal block allocation and sentenced to imprisonment of more than three years.

What are some of the issues to consider in the 2015 Bill?

One of the major policy shifts the 2015 Bill seeks to achieve is to enable private companies to mine coal in the future, in order to improve the supply of coal in the market.  Currently, the coal sector is regulated by the Coal Controller’s Organization, which is under the Ministry of Coal.  The Bill does not establish an independent regulator to ensure a level playing field for both private and government companies bidding for auction of mines to conduct coal mining operations.   In the past, when other sectors have opened up to the private sector, an independent regulatory body has been established beforehand.  For example, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, an independent regulatory body, was established when the telecom sector was opened up for private service providers.  The Bill also does not specify any guidelines on the monitoring of mining activities by the new allottees.

While the Bill provides broad details of the process of auction and allotment, the actual results with regards to money coming in to the states, will depend more on specific details, such as the tender documents and floor price.  It is also to be seen whether the new allotment process ensures equitable distribution of coal blocks among the companies and creates a fair, level-playing field for them.  In the past, the functioning of coal mines has been delayed due to delays in land acquisition and environmental clearances.  This Bill does not address these issues.  The auctioning of coal blocks resulting in improving the supply of coal, and in turn addressing the problem of power shortage in the country, will also depend on the efficient functioning of the mines,  in addition to factors such as transparent allocations.

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