Finance Bill: wrong, unhealthy trend

The Lok Sabha passed the Finance Bill 2017, giving effect to the Union government’s budget proposals and taxation measures for the coming year. But the Bill that was passed is different from the one tabled on the budget day. The government introduced a number of last-minute amendments most of which were not related to taxes and government finances. The Rajya Sabha could not make any changes in these proposals as they went packaged as a Money Bill. However, these changes are too important to have been smuggled into law in haste. Some of them are against the claimed goals of the government. The government’s sleight has also undermined the constitutional role of the Rajya Sabha. Last year, it had secured the passage of the Aadhaar Bill in Parliament as a Money Bill. It has resorted to the same wrong and unhealthy stratagem on a bigger scale now.

According to the one of the amendments, income tax officers need not disclose reasons behind summons for searches, not even to “any authority or the Appellate Tribunal.” This has been included for retroactive summons too, starting from 1962. Another amendment is related to the funding of political parties by companies. The existing law said that a company could make contributions not exceeding 7.5% of its three years’ average profits to parties. The amendment lifted this ban and now allows companies to make unlimited contributions. The existing law also mandated that the names of beneficiaries of the contributions be made public. The amendment removed this stipulation, too. This means a company can donate any amount to a party without disclosing its name. This has falsified all claims about making political funding transparent and making the donor and the recipient accountable. The logic of introducing this change of law as part of a Money Bill is beyond comprehension. The matter has nothing to do with government finances. It is about party funds, corporate donations and electoral reforms which do not come within the scope of the Finance Bill.

Yet another amendment proposed the replacement and merger of some appellate tribunals of regulatory bodies in a number of sectors. These tribunals are quasi-judicial bodies with specialised domain knowledge. But now, the telecom tribunal will look after airports too; the airport tribunal will look after highways, and the company law tribunal will handle violations of competition laws. Again, these provisions should have had no place in the Finance Bill. The government has also undermined the autonomy of these bodies by assuming the power to appoint their members. These amendments are improper, undemocratic and against the spirit of the Constitution. It is unfortunate that the Lok Sabha Speaker was a party to this deception.

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