Legislation

Debt recovery in India : The 2016 Bill and what it seeks to do

  The Enforcement of Security Interest and Recovery of Debts Laws and Miscellaneous Provisions (Amendment) Bill, 2016 is listed for discussion in Rajya Sabha today.[i]  The Bill aims to expeditiously resolve cases of debt recovery by making amendments to four laws, including the (i) Recovery of Debts Due to Banks and Financial Institutions Act, 1993, and (ii) the Securitisation and Reconstruction of Financial Assets and Enforcement of Security Interest Act, 2002. Recovery of Debts Due to Banks and Financial Institutions Act, 1993 The 1993 Act created Debt Recovery Tribunals (DRTS) to adjudicated debt recovery cases.  This was done to move cases out of civil courts, with the idea of reducing time taken for debt recovery, and for providing technical expertise.  This was aimed at assisting banks and financial institutions in recovering outstanding debt from defaulters. Over the years, it has been observed that the DRTs do not comply with the stipulated time frame of resolving disputes within six months. This has resulted in delays in disposal, and a high pendency of cases before the DRTs. Between March 2013 and December 2015, the number of pending cases before the DRTs increased from 43,000 to 70,000.  With an average disposal rate of 10,000 cases per year, it is estimated that these DRTs will take about six to seven years to clear the existing backlog of cases.[ii] Experts have also observed that the DRT officers, responsible for debt recovery, lack experience in dealing with such cases.  Further, these officers are not adequately trained to adjudicate debt-related matters.[iii] The 2016 Bill proposes to increase the retirement age of Presiding Officers of DRTs, and allows for their reappointment.  This will allow the existing DRT officers to serve for longer periods of time.  However, such a move may have limited impact in expanding the pool of officers in the DRTs. The 2016 Bill also has a provision which allows Presiding Officers of tribunals, established under other laws, to head DRTs.  Currently, there are various specialised tribunals functioning in the country, like the Securities Appellate Tribunal, the National Company Law Tribunal, and theNational Green Tribunal.  It remains to be seen if the skills brought in by officers of these tribunals will mirror the specialisation required for adjudicating debt-related matters. Further, the 1993 Act provides that banks and financial institutions must file cases in those DRTs that have jurisdiction over the defendant’s area of residence or business.  In addition, the Bill allows cases to be filed in DRTs having jurisdiction over the bank branch where the debt is due. The Bill also provides that certain procedures, such as presentation of claims by parties and issue of summons by DRTs, can now be undertaken in electronic form (such as filing them on the DRT website). Securitisation and Reconstruction of Financial Assets and Enforcement of Security Interest Act, 2002 The 2002 Act allows secured creditors (lenders whose loans are backed by a security) to take possession over a collateral security if the debtor defaults in repayment.  This allows creditors to sell the collateral security and recover the outstanding debt without the intervention of a court or a tribunal. This takeover of collateral security is done with the assistance of the District Magistrate (DM), having jurisdiction over the security.  Experts have noted that the absence of a time-limit for the DM to dispose such applications has resulted in delays.[iv]  The 2016 Bill proposes to introduce a 30-day time limit within which the DM must pass an order for the takeover of a security.  Under certain circumstances, this time-limit may be extended to 60 days. The 2002 Act also regulates the establishment and functioning of Asset Reconstruction Companies (ARCs).  ARCs purchase Non-Performing Assets (NPAs) from banks at a discount.  This allows banks to recover partial payment for an outstanding loan account, thereby helping them maintain cash flow and liquidity.  The functioning of ARCs has been explained in Figure 1. Enforcement of security It has been observed that the setting up of ARCs, along with the use out-of-court systems to take possession of the collateral security, has created an environment conducive to lending.[iii]  However, a few concerns related to the functioning of ARCs have been expressed over the years.  These concerns include a limited number of buyers and capital entering the ARC business, and high transaction costs involved in the transfer of assets in favour of these companies due to the levy of stamp duty.[iii] In this regard, the Bill proposes to exempt the payment of stamp duty on transfer of financial assets in favour of ARCs.  This benefit will not be applicable if the asset has been transferred for purposes other than securitisation or reconstruction (such as for the ARCs own use or investment).  Consequently, the Bill amends the Indian Stamp Act, 1899. The Bill also provides greater powers to the Reserve Bank of India to regulate ARCs.  This includes the power to carry out audits and inspections either on its own, or through specialised agencies. With the passage of the Bankruptcy Code in May 2016, a complete overhaul of the debt recovery proceedings was envisaged.  The Code allows creditors to collectively take action against a defaulting debtor, and complete this process within a period of 180 days.  During the process, the creditors may choose to revive a company by changing the repayment schedule of outstanding loans, or decide to sell it off for recovering their dues. While the Bankruptcy Code provides for collective action of creditors, the proposed amendments to the SARFAESI and DRT Acts seek to streamline the processes of creditors individually taking action against the defaulting debtor.  The impact of these changes on debt recovery scenario in the country, and the issue of rising NPAs will only become clear in due course of time. [i] Enforcement of Security Interest and Recovery of Debts Laws and Miscellaneous Provisions (Amendment) Bill, 2016, http://www.prsindia.org/administrator/uploads/media/Enforcement%20of%20Security/Enforcement%20of%20Security%20Bill,%202016.pdf. [ii] Unstarred Question No. 1570, Lok Sabha, Ministry of Finance, Answered on March 4, 2016. [iii] ‘A Hundred Small Steps’, Report of the Committee on Financial Sector Reforms, Planning Commission, September 2008, http://planningcommission.nic.in/reports/genrep/rep_fr/cfsr_all.pdf. [iv] Financial Sector Legislative Reforms Commission, March 2013, http://finmin.nic.in/fslrc/fslrc_report_vol1.pdf.

The Bihar Prohibition and Excise Bill, 2016: An analysis

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.

Declaration of assets under the Lokpal Act explained

A Bill to amend the Lokpal and Lokayuktas Act, 2013 was introduced and passed in Lok Sabha yesterday.  The Bill makes amendments in relation to the declaration of assets of public servants, and will apply retrospectively. Declaration of assets under the Lokpal Act, 2013 The Lokpal Act, 2013 provides for a mechanism to inquire into corruption related allegations against public servants.  The Act defines public servants to include the Prime Minister, Union Ministers, Members of Parliament, central government and Public Sector Undertakings employees, and trustees and officials of NGOs that receive foreign contribution above Rs 10 lakhs a year, and those getting a certain amount of government funding. [A June 2016 notification set this amount at Rs. 1 crore.] The Lokpal Act mandates public servants to declare their assets and liabilities, and that of their spouses and dependent children.  Such declarations must be filed by July 31st every year.  They must also be published on the website of the Ministry by August 31st. 2014 amendments proposed to the Lokpal Act In December 2014, a Bill to amend the 2013 Act was introduced in Lok Sabha.  Among other things, the Bill sought to modify the provision related to declaration of assets by public servants.  The Bill required that the public servant’s declaration contain information of all his assets, including: (i) movable and immovable property owned, inherited, acquired, or held on lease in his or another’s name; and (ii) debts and liabilities incurred directly or indirectly by him.  The Bill also said that declaration requirements for public servants under the Representation of the People Act, 1951 (for MPs), All India Services Act, 1951 (for senior civil servants), etc. would also apply. The Standing Committee that examined this Bill, in 2015, had recommended that the public servants should declare the assets and liabilities to their Competent Authority.  For example, for an MP, the competent authority would be the Speaker of Lok Sabha or Chairman of Rajya Sabha.  Such declarations should then be forwarded to the Lokpal to keep in a fiduciary capacity.  Both these authorities would be competent to review the returns filed by the public servants.  In light of such double scrutiny, the Committee recommended that public disclosure of such assets and liabilities would not be necessary. Further, the Committee also noted that family members of public servants are not obliged to disclose assets acquired through their own income. These disclosures may be in violation of Article 21 (right to privacy) or 14 (right to equality) of the Constitution.  However, the public servant must declare assets and liabilities of his dependents, and those acquired by him in the name of another.  This Bill is currently pending in Lok Sabha. The 2016 Bill and its position on declaration of assets The Amendment Bill, that was introduced and passed by Lok Sabha yesterday, replaces the provision under the Lokpal Act, 2013 related to the declaration of assets and liabilities by public servants.  While the new provision also mandates public servants to declare their assets and liabilities, it does not specify the manner of such declaration.  The Bill states that the form and manner of such declarations to be made by public servants will be prescribed by the central government.  Therefore, if passed by Parliament, the effect of the amendments will be the following:

  1. Trustees and officers of certain NGOs will continue to be regarded as public servants for the purposes of the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988 and the Lokpal Act, 2013. There is no differentiation in the treatment of government servants and trustees of NGOs.
  2. The requirement for declaring assets and liabilities will continue to be applicable.
  3. However, the Act will no longer require assets and liabilities of spouses and dependent children of public servants to be declared. It also removes the mandatory disclosure on the Ministry’s website.
  4. That said, the details of the disclosure to be made will be notified by the central government.
  5. It is not clear whether the earlier notification will automatically lapse, or whether it needs to be rescinded in light of the new amendments.

These implications will apply only if the Bill is passed by Rajya Sabha and gets the President’s assent before July 31, 2016.

The Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code: All you need to know

The Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code, 2016 is listed for passage in Rajya Sabha today.  Last week, Lok Sabha passed the Code with changes recommended by the Joint Parliamentary Committee that examined the Code.[1],[2]  We present answers to some of the frequently asked questions in relation to the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code, 2016. Why do we need a new law?Time resolve insolvency1 As of 2015, insolvency resolution in India took 4.3 years on an average.  This is higher when compared to other countries such as United Kingdom (1 year) and United States of America (1.5 years).  Figure 1 provides a comparison of the time to resolve insolvency for various countries.  These delays are caused due to time taken to resolve cases in courts, and confusion due to a lack of clarity about the current bankruptcy framework. What does the current Code aim to do? The 2016 Code applies to companies and individuals.  It provides for a time-bound process to resolve insolvency.  When a default in repayment occurs, creditors gain control over debtor’s assets and must take decisions to resolve insolvency within a 180-day period.  To ensure an uninterrupted resolution process, the Code also provides immunity to debtors from resolution claims of creditors during this period. The Code also consolidates provisions of the current legislative framework to form a common forum for debtors and creditors of all classes to resolve insolvency. Who facilitates the insolvency resolution under the Code? The Code creates various institutions to facilitate resolution of insolvency.  These are as follows:

  • Insolvency Professionals: A specialised cadre of licensed professionals is proposed to be created. These professionals will administer the resolution process, manage the assets of the debtor, and provide information for creditors to assist them in decision making.
  • Insolvency Professional Agencies: The insolvency professionals will be registered with insolvency professional agencies. The agencies conduct examinations to certify the insolvency professionals and enforce a code of conduct for their performance.
  • Information Utilities: Creditors will report financial information of the debt owed to them by the debtor. Such information will include records of debt, liabilities and defaults.
  • Adjudicating authorities: The proceedings of the resolution process will be adjudicated by the National Companies Law Tribunal (NCLT), for companies; and the Debt Recovery Tribunal (DRT), for individuals. The duties of the authorities will include approval to initiate the resolution process, appoint the insolvency professional, and approve the final decision of creditors.
  • Insolvency and Bankruptcy Board: The Board will regulate insolvency professionals, insolvency professional agencies and information utilities set up under the Code.  The Board will consist of representatives of Reserve Bank of India, and the Ministries of Finance, Corporate Affairs and Law.

What is the procedure to resolve insolvency in the Code? The Code proposes the following steps to resolve insolvency:

  • Initiation: When a default occurs, the resolution process may be initiated by the debtor or creditor. The insolvency professional administers the process.  The professional provides financial information of the debtor from the information utilities to the creditor and manage the debtor’s assets.  This process lasts for 180 days and any legal action against the debtor is prohibited during this period.
  • Decision to resolve insolvency: A committee consisting of the financial creditors who lent money to the debtor will be formed by the insolvency professional. The creditors committee will take a decision regarding the future of the outstanding debt owed to them.  They may choose to revive the debt owed to them by changing the repayment schedule, or sell (liquidate) the assets of the debtor to repay the debts owed to them.  If a decision is not taken in 180 days, the debtor’s assets go into liquidation.
  • Liquidation: If the debtor goes into liquidation, an insolvency professional administers the liquidation process. Proceeds from the sale of the debtor’s assets are distributed in the following order of precedence: i) insolvency resolution costs, including the remuneration to the insolvency professional, ii) secured creditors, whose loans are backed by collateral, dues to workers, other employees, iii) unsecured creditors, iv) dues to government, v) priority shareholders and vi) equity shareholders.

What are some issues in the Code that require consideration?

  • The Bankruptcy Board (regulator) will regulate insolvency professional agencies (IPAs), which will further regulate insolvency professionals (IPs).  The rationale behind multiple IPAs overseeing the functioning of their member IPs, instead of a single regulator is unclear. The presence of multiple IPAs  operating simultaneously could enable competition in the sector. However, this may also lead to a conflict of interest between the regulatory and competitive goals of the IPAs.  This structure of regulation varies from the current practice where the regulator directly regulates its registered professionals.  For example, the Institute of Chartered Accountants of India (which regulates chartered accountants) is directly responsible for regulating its registered members.
  • The Code provides an order of priority to distribute assets during liquidation. It is unclear why: (i) secured creditors will receive their entire outstanding amount, rather than up to their collateral value, (ii) unsecured creditors have priority over trade creditors, and (iii) government dues will be repaid after unsecured creditors.
  • The smooth functioning of the Code depends on the functioning of new entities such as insolvency professionals, insolvency professional agencies and information utilities.  These entities will have to evolve over time for the proper functioning of the system.  In addition, the NCLT, which will adjudicate corporate insolvency has not been constituted as yet, and the DRTs are overloaded with pending cases.

 


 

  1. The Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code, 2016, http://www.prsindia.org/administrator/uploads/media/Bankruptcy/Bankruptcy%20Code%20as%20passed%20by%20LS.pdf.
  2. Report of the Joint Committee on the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code, 2015, April 28, 2016, http://164.100.47.134/lsscommittee/Joint%20Committee%20on%20Insolvency%20and%20Bankruptcy%20Code,%202015/16_Joint_Committee_o n_Insolvency_and_Bankruptcy_Code_2015_1.pdf

A version of this blog appeared in the Business Standard on May 7, 2016.

The Juvenile Justice Bill, 2015: All you need to know

The Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Bill, 2015 is currently pending in Rajya Sabha and was listed for passage in the current Winter session of Parliament.  The Bill was passed by Lok Sabha after incorporating certain amendments, in May 2015.  Here is all you need to know about the Bill and key issues associated with it.  A PRS analysis of the statistics on incidence of crimes by children and conviction rates is available here.

Table 1: Juveniles between 16-18 years apprehended under IPC  
Crime

2003

2013

Burglary

1,160

2,117

Rape

293

1,388

Kidnapping/abduction

156

933

Robbery

165

880

Murder

328

845

Other offences

11,839

19,641

Total

13,941

25,804

Note: Other offences include cheating, rioting, etc.  Sources: Juveniles in conflict with law, Crime in India 2013, National Crime Records Bureau; PRS.  

Who is a juvenile as recognised by law? In the Indian context, a juvenile or child is any person who is below the age of 18 years.  However, the Indian Penal Code specifies that a child cannot be charged for any crime until he has attained seven years of age. Why is there a need for a new Bill when a juvenile justice law already exists? The government introduced the Juvenile Justice Bill in August 2014 in Lok Sabha and gave various reasons to justify the need for a new law.  It said that the existing Juvenile Justice Act, 2000 was facing implementation issues and procedural delays with regard to adoption, etc.  Additionally, the government cited National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data to say that there has been an increase in crimes committed by juveniles, especially by those in the 16-18 years age group. NCRB data shows that the percentage of juvenile crimes, when seen in proportion to total crimes, has increased from 1% in 2003 to 1.2% in 2013.  During the same period, 16-18 year olds accused of crimes as a percentage of all juveniles accused of crimes increased from 54% to 66%.  However, the type of crimes committed by 16-18 year olds can be seen in table 1. What is the new Bill doing? Currently, the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2000 provides the framework to deal with children who are in conflict with law and children in need of care and protection.  The Bill seeks to replace the existing 2000 Act and lays down the procedures to deal with both categories of children.  It highlights the two main bodies that will deal with these children, to be set up in each district: Juvenile Justice Boards (JJBs) and Child Welfare Committees (CWCs).  It provides details regarding adoption processes and penalties applicable under the law.  The Bill provides for children between 16-18 years to be tried as adults for heinous crimes.  The three types of offences defined by the Bill are: (i) a heinous offence is an offence that attracts a minimum penalty of seven years imprisonment under any existing law, (ii) a serious offence is one that gets imprisonment between three to seven years and, (iii) a petty offence is penalized with up to three years imprisonment. Currently, how is a juvenile in conflict with law treated? How is that set to change? Under the 2000 Act, any child in conflict with law, regardless of the type of offence committed, may spend a maximum of three years in institutional care (special home, etc.)  The child cannot be given any penalty higher than three years, nor be tried as an adult and be sent to an adult jail.  The proposed Bill treats all children under the age of 18 years in a similar way, except for one departure.  It states that any 16-18 year old who commits a heinous offence may be tried as an adult.  The JJB shall assess the child’s mental and physical capacity, ability to understand consequences of the offence, etc.  On the basis of this assessment, a Children’s Court will determine whether the child is fit to be tried as an adult. What did the Standing Committee examining the Bill observe? One of the reasons cited for the introduction of the Bill is a spike in juvenile crime, as depicted by NCRB data.  The Standing Committee on Human Resource Development examining the Bill stated that NCRB data was misleading as it was based on FIRs and not actual convictions.  It also observed that the Bill violates some constitutional provisions and said that the approach towards juvenile offenders should be reformative and rehabilitative. The Bill as introduced posed certain constitutional violations to Article 14, 20(1) and 21.  These have been addressed by deletion of the relevant clause, at the time of passing the Bill in Lok Sabha. What does the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) say? What are the obligations on the signatory nations? The UNCRC was ratified by India in 1992 and the 2000 Act was consequently brought in to adhere to the standards set by the Convention.  The proposed Bill maintains this aim and seeks to improve implementation and procedural delays experienced by the 2000 Act.  The UNCRC states that signatory countries should treat every child under the age of 18 years in the same manner and not try them as adults.  While the 2000 Act complies with this requirement, the Bill does not.  However, many other countries who have also ratified the Convention try juveniles as adults, in case of certain crimes.  These countries include the UK, France, Germany, etc.  The United States is not a signatory to the UNCRC and also treats juveniles as adults in case of certain crimes. Under the Bill, what happens to a child who is found to be orphaned, abandoned or surrendered? The Bill addresses children in need of care and protection.  When a child is found to be orphaned, abandoned or surrendered he is brought before a Child Welfare Committee within 24 hours.  A social investigation report is conducted for the child, and the Committee decides to either send the child to a children’s home or any other facility it deems fit, or to declare the child to be free for adoption or foster care.  The Bill outlines the eligibility criteria for prospective parents.  It also details procedures for adoption, and introduces a provision for inter-country adoption, so that prospective parents living outside the country can adopt a child in India. Currently, the Guidelines Governing Adoption, 2015 under the 2000 Act, regulates adoptions.  Model Foster Care Guidelines have also recently been released by the Ministry of Women and Child Development. What are the penalties for committing offences against children? Various penalties for committing offences against children are laid out in the Bill.  These include penalties for giving a child an intoxicating substance, selling or buying the child, cruelty against a child, etc. Issue to consider: The penalty for giving a child an intoxicating or narcotic substance is an imprisonment of seven years and a fine of up to one lakh rupees.  Comparatively, buying or selling a child will attract a penalty including imprisonment of five years and a fine of one lakh rupees. It remains to be seen if the Bill will be taken up for consideration in this session, and if its passage will address the issues surrounding children in conflict with the law.

Regulating real estate: the 2013 Bill and recent developments

Yesterday, Cabinet approved amendments to the Real Estate (Regulation and Development) Bill, 2013, which is currently pending in Parliament. In this context, the blog post outlines key features and issues related to the Bill, and certain changes which were approved by Cabinet. What is the current status of the Bill? The Bill was introduced in Rajya Sabha in August 2013.  It was then referred to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Urban Development, which submitted its report in February 2014.  The Bill has not been discussed in Parliament as yet, and is currently pending in Rajya Sabha. As mentioned above, Cabinet approved certain changes to the Bill yesterday.  However, a comprehensive list of these changes is not available in the public domain yet. What are the key features of the Bill? The Bill regulates transactions between buyers and promoters (sellers) of residential real estate projects.  It establishes state level regulatory authorities called Real Estate Regulatory Authorities (RERAs) in order to do so.  Residential real estate projects, with some exceptions, need to be registered with RERAs, and their details must be uploaded on the website of the RERA.  This implies that promoters cannot book or offer these projects for sale without registering them with RERAs.  Real estate agents dealing in these projects also need to register with RERAs.  The Bill also establishes state level appellate tribunals called Real Estate Appellate Tribunals.  Decisions of RERAs can be challenged before these tribunals. The Bill outlines the duties of promoters, buyers, and real estate agents.  For example, the Bill requires that promoters keep 70% of the amount collected from buyers for a project, in a separate bank account. This amount must only be used for construction of that project.  The state government can alter this amount to less than 70%.  The Bill also provides for penalties for the breach of certain provisions of the Bill. What are some of the issues to consider? A few key issues to consider in the Bill are related to the following: (i) certain states have already enacted laws to regulate real estate; (ii) commercial real estate has not been included within the ambit of the Bill; (iii) certain smaller sized projects have not been covered under the Bill; and (iv)  70% of the amount collected from buyers must be kept in an escrow account. Firstly, at present, certain states, such as West Bengal and Maharashtra, have already enacted laws to regulate real estate.  So, any central law on real estate that is subsequently enacted will override provisions of state laws if they are inconsistent with the central law.  For example, while this Bill (introduced at the centre) requires that 70% of the amount collected from buyers be kept in a separate account and be used only for construction of that project, the Maharashtra law requires that the entire amount collected from buyers be used only for purposes collected. Secondly, while the Bill seeks to regulate residential real estate, commercial real estate has been excluded from its ambit.  The Standing Committee has also pointed out that commercial and industrial real estate should be regulated by the Bill. Thirdly, registration with RERAs is not required for projects that: (i) are less than 1000 square metres, or (ii) entail the construction of less than 12 apartments, or (iii) entail renovation/repair/re-development without re-allotment or marketing of the project.  The Standing Committee has pointed out that the exclusion of projects, smaller than 1,000 square meters or 12 apartments, from the purview of RERAs could lead to the exclusion of a number of small housing projects.  Instead, it has suggested that only projects that are smaller than 100 square meters or three apartments need not register with the RERA. Finally, the Bill mandates that 70% of the amount collected from buyers of a project be used only for construction of that project.  Typically, the project cost of a real estate project includes the cost of land and the cost of construction.  In certain cases, the cost of construction could be less than 70% and the cost of land more than 30% of the total amount collected.  This implies that part of the funds collected could remain unutilised, necessitating some financing from other sources.  Consequently, this could raise the project cost. The Standing Committee made certain other recommendations in relation to the Bill.  It suggested that all real estate agents be registered with RERAs; and that a new provision be inserted to allow RERAs to give directions to state governments to establish a single window system for providing clearances for projects.  Additionally, a time limit should be specified for state and local authorities to issue completion certificates for projects. What were the changes to the Bill approved by Cabinet yesterday? A comprehensive list of amendments is not in the public domain yet.  However, a press release of the government, published by the Press Information Bureau, indicates the following changes have been made: firstly, the application of the Bill has been extended to cover commercial real estate, in addition to residential real estate; and secondly, the amount to be kept in an escrow account has been reduced from 70% of the amount collected from buyers to 50%. For more information, please see the PRS Legislative Brief on the Bill, available here.  You can also watch a PRS video on the Bill here.

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

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.

Land Acquisition: An overview of proposed amendments to the law

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. 

EU bans imports of Alphonso mangoes: Is India's biosecurity mechanism rigorous enough?

Recent news reports indicate that the European Union (EU) has banned imports of Alphonso mangoes and four vegetables from India due to the presence of harmful pests and a lack of certification before export.  The ban will be effective between May 1, 2014 and December 2015.  It has been suggested that the ban could impact the export of nearly 16 million mangoes from India, the market for which is worth nearly £6 million a year in a country like the United Kingdom. In this context, it may be useful to examine the regulation of agricultural biosecurity in India, particularly with respect to imports and exports of such agricultural produce. Currently, two laws, the Destructive Insects and Pests Act, 1914 and the Livestock Importation Act, 1898, regulate the import and export of plants and animals with a view to control pests and diseases.  Under the laws, the authorities ensure that infectious diseases and pests do not cause widespread damage to the environment, crops, agricultural produce and human beings, i.e. the agricultural biosecurity of a country.  Common examples of pests and diseases have been the Banana bunchy top virus which stunts banana plants and stops production of fruit while another is the Avian Influenza, which caused extensive death of poultry and led to human deaths as well. Under the existing Acts, different government departments and government-approved bodies are responsible for regulating imports and certifying exports to ensure that there are no threats to agricultural biosecurity.  The Department of Agriculture keeps a check on pests and diseases arising from plants and related produce, such as mangoes and vegetables, while the Department of Animal Husbandry monitors diseases relating to animals and meat products.  The Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA) certifies exports of different commodities related to plants and animals.  Various government committees have highlighted the ineffectiveness of the existing system due to its piecemeal approach and have recommended an integrated system to handle biosecurity issues.  It has also been suggested that the existing laws have not kept up with developments in agriculture and are inadequate to deal with the emergence of trans-boundary diseases that pose threats to human, animal and plant safety. The Agricultural Biosecurity Bill, 2013, pending in Parliament seeks to replace these laws and establish a national authority, the Agricultural Biosecurity Authority of India (ABAI), to regulate biosecurity issues related to plants and animals.  ABAI shall be responsible for: (i) regulating the import and export of plants, animals and related products, (ii) implementing quarantine measures in case of the existence of pests, (iii) regulating the inter-state spread of pests and diseases relating to plants and animals, and (iv) undertaking regular surveillance of pests and diseases.  Under the Bill, exports of plants, animals and related products will only be allowed once ABAI has issued a sanitary or phytosanitary certificate in accordance with the destination country’s requirements. The penalty for exporting goods without adequate certification from ABAI is imprisonment upto two years and and a fine of Rs 2 lakh. The proposed ABAI will also meet India’s obligations to promote research and prevent pests and diseases under the International Plant Protection Convention and the Office International des Epizooties. A PRS analysis of various aspects of the Bill can be found here. The Bill will lapse with the dissolution of the 15th Lok Sabha.  It remains to be seen how the incoming government in the 16th Lok Sabha will approach biosecurity issues to prevent incidents like the EU ban on imports of Indian fruits and vegetables in the future.

Land acquisition process can take 50 months

The new Land Acquisition Bill has detailed a process for acquiring land.  The process could take up to 50 months.  This will increase the gestation period of projects.  The new time line and the attendant uncertainty at each step will have to be factored in by promoters of projects while computing the costs and feasibility. The details of the process are given in the Table below.  Some of the processes can be conducted concurrently with others. The processes which need to be done sequentially are shown in bold.  These add up to 50 months (not counting extensions). Time limits for various steps for Land Acquisition under the new Act

Process Section Time limit
Social Impact Assessment 4(1) last proviso 6 months
Appraisal of SIA by review committee 7(4) and 7(5) 2 months
Examination of land acquisition proposal and SIA by appropriate government 8 No time limit specified
SIA expert group appraisal to Preliminary notification 14 12 months but extendable by appropriate government
Preliminary notification to updating of land records 11(5) 2 months
Preliminary notification to objections 16(1) 60 days
Preliminary notification to R&R survey 17(1) Time limit to be prescribed in Rules
Preliminary notification under section 11 to Declaration under section 20 15 and 20(7) (inconsistency) 12 months (S15)12 months but extendable by appropriate government; also court stay period excluded (S20(7))
Time for compensation claims to be made 22(2) 30 days to 6 months
Declaration to Award 26 12 months but extendable by appropriate government
Correction of Award by Collector 34(1) 6 months
Award to Possession of land by collector  39(1) After ensuring compensation is paid (3 months) and monetary component of R&R paid (6 months).
Time for infrastructure entitlements under R&R 39(1) proviso 18 months after award

Source: PRS Total Time Limit (assuming no extensions): SIA (6 months) + Expert group appraisal (2 months) + Preliminary notification (12 months) + Declaration (12 months) + Award (12 months) + Possession (6 months) = 50 months.