Finance Bill puts India at risk: The way Modi government passed it is worrisome
This doesn't augur well for parliamentary democracy.
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The Finance Bill 2017, ratified by the Lok Sabha on Wednesday, gives a sneak peek into the Narendra Modi government's strategy for dealing with the Opposition for the remainder of its 26-month term.
Buoyed by the Bharatiya Janata Party's good showing in the just-concluded Assembly elections in four of the five states, particularly its massive victory in Uttar Pradesh, the Modi government has made it clear to the much-weakened Opposition that from here on, it's going to be the “my way or the highway” kind of approach.
And Finance Bill 2017 is the first demonstrator of the Modi government's electoral might since these Assembly elections.
The Bill, which is set to come into effect on July 1, 2017, lays a dangerous precedence. It makes the central government all powerful, clips the wings of the Opposition further, weakens the parliamentary procedure and even treads on the toes of the judiciary. Here's how.
The Modi government made as many as 40 amendments to the Finance Bill, triggering an outcry from the Opposition. But given the current state of the opposition parties, its outcry was nothing more than a whimper - and obviously the government knew that it can have its way.
The 40 amendments could have made at least half a dozen independent Bills, if not a dozen, and it would have meant a wider and more comprehensive debate in Parliament.
But the government made the Finance Bill an omnibus bill and what's more made it a money Bill. The strategy was clear. Many of the 40 amendments couldn't have justified the money bill tag and, therefore, clobbered all these into the Finance Bill.
Thus the Finance Bill became one leviathan mothership which had 40 amendments attached to it as small dinghies. And since it is a money bill, the mothership Finance Bill can easily sail through Parliament without bothering about the choppy waters of the Rajya Sabha where the BJP lacks majority.
Needless to remind that a money Bill doesn't require approval of the Rajya Sabha and even if the Upper House rejects it, theoretically speaking, it makes no difference. No wonder then that the Modi government is pushing many of its important legislative businesses in the garb of money Bills. Doesn't it weaken the parliamentary procedure?
A major highlight of the Finance Bill 2017 is that it makes Aadhaar card mandatory for practically everything, even for filing income tax returns, applying for PAN card and for availing services like free gas connections for women below poverty line, receiving cash awards and pensions for the defence personnel. This steps on the toes of the judiciary.The Finance Bill became one leviathan mothership which had 40 amendments attached to it as small dinghies.
First, according to a judgment of the Supreme Court in September 2016, the enrolment to a national database by providing biometric information is voluntary. Can the government deny public services to its citizens because of Aadhaar?
The government has been punching way above its weight on this issue and recently came up with the hare-brained idea of making Aadhaar card mandatory even for children availing mid-day meal schemes across the country, the world’s biggest public welfare oriented project.
Second, it poses an inevitable question as to how the government will deal with a large number of foreigners working in India who pay taxes here. Obviously, the Aadhaar stick cannot be wielded against the foreigners. The government, therefore, will have to announce exemptions for the foreigners and indeed one of the amendments suggests that the government would embark upon this roadmap.
Third, it raises the question of propriety as the Aadhaar issue is already being examined by the Supreme Court. The government wants to push even the Aadhaar Bill - known as the Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and Other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Bill, 2016 - as a money Bill.
The government’s reason for this is that since many of the subsidies are linked to Aadhaar and since it involves finances, the Aadhaar Bill is a money Bill. The Congress has already challenged the Bill in the Supreme Court.
Last, but not the least, is another weird component of the Finance Bill 2017 - merging of eight tribunals and vesting in the government powers of making rules governing appointment, removal and terms of service of members for 17 tribunals.
The government is unmindful of the stark incongruities in the merging of these tribunals. For example, merging the Airport Economic Regulatory Authority Appellate Tribunal with the Telecom Dispute Settlement and Appellate Tribunal is like stacking oranges in the basket of apples.
But as I pointed out earlier, the government is going ahead with its reform agenda in a “my way or the highway” fashion as the Opposition is in complete disarray.
This doesn't augur well for the Indian parliamentary democracy.