Finance Bill, 2017: You’ve Just Been Punked
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Finance Bill, 2017: You’ve Just Been Punked

The last two days saw this government go good, bad and ugly on the country. Hello to a brave new world that’s governed by the new, freshly-amended Finance Bill, 2017

By Meghnad S

Published on :

Lok Sabha witnessed an intense two days as the Finance Bill 2017 was debated on the floor of the house. It’s a controversial bill which contains some clauses that would force any sane human being into a self-induced coma. This coma-guy would choose to wake up only after the impending nightmare is over. But guess what, Mr Self-induced-coma-coma, since the present government changed a Law, this nightmare will end IF and only IF any political party in the future forms the Government & chooses to do so.

So, my dear Mr Coma-guy, it may be time to rechristen yourself Sleeping-Beauty.

Staying awake and keeping my eyes open didn’t necessarily work out too well for me. I watched in horror from 50 feet away as the Lok Sabha Rules of Procedures book was flung out of the window by the present Government without giving a single bother.

First, a quick recap of the deadly provisions in the Finance Act, 2017

  1. The Bill gives holymotherofgod super powers to Income Tax officials. Now the officers can enter any property and search any person without giving any real reason as to why they are doing so.
  2. The Bill enables anybody to donate to political parties anonymously using a new instrument called “Electoral Bonds”. Donations from foreign sources, if any, will also be anonymous.
  3. Earlier there was a cap on how much donations a company can give to a political party. That cap has been removed.
  4. Aadhaar Cards will be mandatory for filing income tax returns. What’s more, if a person does not link his/her PAN card with their Aadhaar, the PAN will be rendered invalid after July 1, 2017.
  5. This bill merges together eight different tribunals into other existing ones. Tribunals are quasi-judicial bodies which exist for dispute resolution. Earlier, the way in which members of these tribunals are chosen was done in different ways & governed by separate laws. Some required recommendations from the judiciary, some were chosen by a special steering committee etc. Now, with the new Finance Bill that’s been passed yesterday, the Centre can choose the members through a simple gazette notification.

The government just went total Good, Bad, Ugly on the country.

All of this was in one single law. That too, a law which is officially a money bill. It will be sent to Rajya Sabha only for their “recommendations”. Recommendations which the Lok Sabha is free to reject. All of this just blows my mind, quite frankly.

Backtrack: How it all started

The Introduction of the Finance Bill, 2017 happened on February 1. During his budget speech, Arun Jaitley, our Finance Minister, said some very interesting things.

About the Electoral funding provisions:

About the Income Tax search and seizure provisions

But he did not utter a single word about the provisions on making Aadhaar mandatory for income tax filing or the merging of tribunals.

Wondering why? Because those two provisions were not even a part of the originally proposed finance bill! The Finance Minister wasn’t really hiding anything purposefully, he just didn’t bother to introduce those two particular provisions till the very last minute, by which I mean the day of debate.

D-Day: Tuesday, March 21, 2017

NK Premchandran, the hero we need but don’t deserve, a lone ranger MP who fights for what is right, kicked off the debate by opposing the contents of the Finance Bill.

The Finance Bill is supposed to only contain provisions pertaining to taxation and finances. So any other law cannot be included in it. If the government wishes to make changes in other laws, they should bring them in separately, have a debate on them and then put them up for vote.

There’s this nice little Rule number 80 which says:

  1. The following conditions shall govern the admissibility of amendments to clauses or schedules of a Bill :-

(i) An amendment shall be within the scope of the Bill and relevant to the subject matter of the clause to which it relates.

But this particular government seems to have made a habit of not abiding by this very basic rule.

They brought in a super-weapon called Rule 388 which says:

  1. Any member may, with the consent of the Speaker, move that any rule may be suspended in its application to a particular motion before the House and if the motion is carried the rule in question shall be suspended for the time being.

Basically, by using this rule, the Speaker be like:

… and she can allow ANY rule to be suspended. In this case, she allowed the suspension of Rule 80.

Given this incredible amount of freedom, the Finance Minister shoved in changes to 40 laws within the Finance Bill!

Why did the Government do this?

It’s quite simple really.

The Finance Bill is a money bill by nature, according to Article 110 of our Constitution. Only the Lok Sabha is allowed to consider and vote on money bills. The Rajya Sabha can give recommendations, but the lower house can simply ignore those. At this point of time, the Bharatiya Janata Party has majority in Lok Sabha, but not in Rajya Sabha. They can pass any bill in Lok Sabha by the sheer force of numbers, but it will either get blocked or changed in the Rajya Sabha.

So, our Finance Minister, in all his wisdom as a competent erstwhile lawyer, seems to be using this little loophole of money bills to make the Rajya Sabha irrelevant. He’s done this before with the Aadhaar Bill & even for last year’s Finance Bill, but this time round, he went quite, quite overboard.

And Mr Jaitley’s response to NK Premchandran, who screamed “You can’t put other laws in a Money Bill! THIS IS TOTALLY UNCONSTITUTIONAL,” was… well… interesting.

Let us enter the mind of a lawyer. Mr Jaitley quoted the Article 110 of the Constitution first, which says:

Notice that ‘ONLY’ up there? Our Finance Minister argued that the meaning of the word ONLY is debatable.

No really.

He actually did that.

Then he went on to read a whole judgment (!!!) and concluded.

Those poor souls who were watching this unfold were like:

Surpriiiise!

The debate in Lok Sabha continued. But there was a surprise: Even though there was a whole argument about how stuff that isn’t related to finances cannot be put into a finance bill and how amendments were brought in at the last moment, the final amendment papers were never actually circulated!

Botttom line: Not even one member – NOBODY – knew what the 40 changes to the original Finance Bill were!

There were 150 clauses in the original bill and the finance minister put in 33 new sections at the last moment and didn’t even let anyone know what they were. Even we were left scrambling trying to figure out what the heck is going on.

Let that sink in for a minute.

Original Finance Bill, which members of parliament were given and were prepared for, was changed at the last minute. And on top of that, the changes were made to laws that don’t even relate to the Finance Ministry.

Basically, the Government took the Lok Sabha Rule Book and went:

The amendments

After Day One of the Debate, where MP Yogi Adityanath made a sudden appearance midway and gave a speech that Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath was supposed to give, the amendments were finally circulated to the members. Sources told me the amendments were revealed after MPs of the major parties were done speaking. They were handed this big 31 page document (which is a bill by itself). What that document contained was insane.

It wasn’t only that the FM clearly didn’t expect MPs to actually go through the amendments, the timing was also to ensure there could be no debate on it. What followed in Parliament were shocking scenes of a few MPs trying to register their objections to the amendments and essentially being shushed by the speaker. Resistance was futile.

At the beginning of the piece I pointed out five major things that the Finance Bill does. Points one and two were present in the first draft of the Finance Bill, but points three, four and five were a part of this crazy amendment document.

The news about Aadhaar being made compulsory for Income tax filing broke around the same time that these amendments were circulated to the members. One had to get hold of this document first, go through it vigorously and then say, “Aah so… umm… yeah. There’s more.”

The part about removing donation cap from companies and merging all tribunals should ideally have been brought in as separate laws. They all require to be deliberated and discussed. The implications of these changes in the law are going to be far-reaching and immediate. By not allowing MPs to even go through these changes before they were passed, by shoving them into a money bill at the last minute just to avoid the Upper House and by basically bulldozing it all through without impunity, this Government has managed to pull the ultimate quick-con-job in Indian legislative history.

All of these events, which unfolded in the past two days, have opened up floodgates for more such moves. Now that the Government knows that they can get away with it, it’s a possibility that they will do this again. And again. And again.

This present administration’s definition of debate was best summed up by an exchange between the Finance Minister and Bhatruhari Mahtab of Biju Janata Dal:

Yes, the FM admitted on the floor of Parliament that his government was “forcing the citizen” and that he was dismissing the Supreme Court of India.

*shudder*

I’m moving to the Himalayas and becoming a hermit. Bye.

Disclaimer: Meghnad is a public policy professional and a die-hard Parliament nerd. At the moment, he is working with Biju Janata Dal’s Tathagatha Satpathy, a member of Parliament, as his Chief of Staff.  

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