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Illegal constructions, unethical demolitions

What is the answer to illegal constructions spreading horizontally and vertically over land in complete defiance of building bylaws as well as environmental regulations?

Amita Singh

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Delhi has been waterlogged again after less than an hour of a downpour. Kerala, Assam and Bihar are flooded too and Mumbai, like many other cities, continues to pay the price for illegal constructions. Ironically, the most beautiful season of monsoon, which is still celebrated across traditional India as a season of dance and song, colours, peacocks and snake worship, has become a threat of a disaster.

 An addictive tendency to blame an open-ended target of human greed which is forever unaccountable like human desires hides the prodigious politico-administrative nexus that gives it a shape and a possibility. This manmade catastrophe has been a result of corruption with impunity as illegal occupation of legally prohibitive areas like coasts, shorelines, river banks, sanctuaries, national parks and forest areas continues unabated despite an independent judiciary, a watchful National Green Tribunal (NGT) and a plethora of laws to hook the nostrils of the nexus. Even though warnings against illegal constructions and imposition of penalties had already been issued to the South Delhi Municipal Corporation (SDMC) during the last monsoon by the NGT, the Delhi Pollution Control Board and the Chief Secretary issued directions for strict compliance to the ‘Flood Control Order, 2020 during the current monsoon. Yet, the Mayor of SDMC barefacedly defended her inaction on the lack of available manpower due to their engagement with coronavirus related duties. Notwithstanding the mutual blame game of authorities, the bigger question that awaits attention is to find out those individuals and institutions responsible for this seasonal calamity of misgovernance so that the nexus is gradually diffused.

City floods are usually a result of obstructing natural water channels which give way to rainwater from a higher to a lower ground area as water recedes to an underground aquifer, called a water bank, for future soil health. The devastating Chennai floods of 2015 were not a creation of the north-west monsoon alone but because the blocked drainage system failed to allow water to flow down. There was no timely desilting of drains despite receiving Rs 1,448 crore of funds under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) scheme. Over and above the need for desilting, there were clusters of encroachments at the banks of Cooum and Adyar rivers and also over the major Buckingham Canal which brought the houses crumbling down in a manner very similar to the Delhi Canal which washed away several houses at an upscale ITO area due to overflowing this July.

When our research team visited the Kerala coastal zones in 2015 to assess the quantum of encroachments, the disaster was writ large on the state. Tea gardens, rubber plantations and other cash crops had replaced mangroves, seagrasses and natural water channels. Houses, multistoreyed apartments and river embankments were all designed to promote tourism in negation of even basic norms of environmental conservation. An incessant promotion of dam construction and intensive outsourcing of most services, despite being a land of the communists, meant there was little scope to put a stop to land grab even in the protected and environmentally fragile zones.

The massive protest of forest communities against the Athirapally dam revived the spirit of the protest movement of the 1980s against the Silent Valley Project, in which the ‘ecology’ and ‘environment’ had rediscovered themselves in more robust developmental linkages to the local flora and fauna. This cannot be simple and naïve human greed but a full-bodied illegal control through the nexus. Now that the Athirapally dam has been given environmental clearance and hot tar has been manifestly thrown over a 25-year-old movement for preserving the rich and exotic biodiversity of Chalakudy river basin, vulnerability to disaster is explicit. This will be a replay of decisions which constructed more than 14 dams over River Periyar and its tributaries, causing the 2018 floods which affected more than a million people and killed around five hundred. Illegal constructions, whether big or small, which defy environmental norms, practices and law lead to disasters.

So, what is the answer to illegal constructions spreading horizontally and vertically over land in complete defiance of building bylaws as well as environmental regulations? If corruption is easier than remaining ethical then most developers of dams and buildings would prefer remaining corrupt. It’s a choice offered to them by clerks and administrators occupying high offices begging commissions and a cut in the project cost. How many of us have witnessed the thunderous crashing sound of bulldozers and excavation machines in the neighbourhood as buildings are demolished and an impression is created that misgovernance is undone?

 But once broken down, these indented and serrated buildings continue to hold on for ages as an archival display of Bacchic politicoadministrative nexus that nibbles on any hope for reclaiming good governance in the country. No one knows what to do with the debris as both the owners as well as the administrators are hopeful that once the dust settles down, there can be a possible resolution after charging some fee as a penalty. Some of the most aesthetic buildings are brazenly allowed to be constructed on public land and city slums mushroom in their vicinity overnight to settle migrant labour in their shanty hutments. All this is done under the watchful and yet conceited eye of the city administrator. Surreptitiously, this administrator is nowhere to be seen when demolition knocks down his decisions as corrupt and declares a serious breach of law and ethics.

 Demolition comes with many unanswered questions about its CLUs (change of land-use certificate) timeline, building-electricity-water clearances, CRZ Clearance, but the manner in which the Supreme Court insisted on compliance to regulations in its verdict to bring down the four Kochi apartments at the beginning of this year would dissuade any developer to keep intact the practice of illegal constructions through the corrupt municipal nexus in a city. It suggests that the policy of demolition is embedded in thwarting the gap between an ethical state which razes them down and the unethical one that had earlier raised them up. It’s the commonality of impunity with which the state ‘razes’ or ‘raises’ them. Generally, courts have defensively dawdled between the two situations till the demolition order on Maradu apartments was hammered down by a determined Supreme Court in a suo motu cognizance over Kerala’s impertinent government in January this year. An unprecedented and bold decision against the infamous but magnificently designed apartments in Kochi boldly cleared the shoreline of the Vembanad lake on 12 January 2020. This blatant violation of the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) Rules of 1991 and 2018 never met much opposition internally in the state governance as many local administrators heading the CRZ offices believed in the utter mischief and injustice of CRZ regulations on Kerala’s development by declaring 200m of the high tide line as a ‘no development zone’. Even the SC acquitted a leading developer some time ago in a similar violation of illegal construction at the shoreline of the lake’s backwaters by imposing a meagre penalty of just Rs 1 crore.

 Inspiringly, the same court was more determined in the Maradu judgement when it not only ordered demolition but also ordered the Chief Secretary of the State to be present at the site and ensure strict implementation. The Supreme Court also questioned the intentions of the state in diverting and delaying implementation. Governance through the judiciary emerged as a determined annihilator of the nexus which constructs illegally. As the dream skyscrapers, H2O Holy Faith, Alfa Serene, Jain Coral Cove and Golden Kayaloram, were demolished and the Vembanad shoreline became visible, it launched a historic beginning of good governance in sync with nature.

Our current encounter with Covid-19 has made us wiser in making the right choice when it comes to selecting between glamorous and ostentatious expansion to become rich or the human desire to breathe and live through. Nevertheless, we are still far away from making the right choice between a nexus that delivers and the administration which looks obstructive but remains accountable and responsible. Once citizens learn to make this choice, demolition would no more be a political fire stick!

The writer is Professor of Administrative Reforms & Emergency Governance, Member Secretary, Institutional Ethics Review Board, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. The views expressed are personal.

Opinion

The crisis of credibility facing Indian media

The phenomenal growth of the media in India, including the unregulated arena of social media, has brought with it a significant decline in accountability and reliability. A solution to this lies perhaps in the setting up of a new Media Commission.

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The media in India is facing an unprecedented crisis of credibility. Its exponential growth coupled with diminishing accountability has underlined the urgent need to draw up an agenda in the current scenario for the media to fulfil its constitutional obligations.

The media has a crucial role in promoting democratic and social values, waging a crusade against aberrations and imperfections in the polity and strengthening the edifice of democracy and ensuring good governance.

Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution, guaranteeing the freedom of speech and expression, empowers the media to serve the people with news, views, comments and information on matters of public interest in a fair, accurate, unbiased, sober and decent manner. But the moot question in today’s context is about who will define the “public interest” and whether the media can be goaded to follow any selective interpretation of this phrase.

The government and regulatory mechanisms like the Press Council of India (PCI) think it imperative that the media learn to differentiate between matters of “interest to the public” and “those in public interest”, remaining unbiased not only in covering latest developments in political, social and economic fields but also in highlighting the real issues agitating the masses, such as economic disparities, social discrimination, gender inequalities, child abuse, sanitation, environment, poverty, unemployment, education and healthcare, rather than thriving on non-issues.

But this “imperative” too can’t be enforced either by law or through an executive order. The right to freedom of speech and expression under Article 19(1) (a) is limited by the “reasonable restrictions” contained under Article 19(2) on eight vital grounds on which laws can be made. But Article 19(2) in no way takes away the right of the media to promote its own interests within these reasonable restrictions, especially in this era of liberalisation.

In Bennett Coleman & Co. v Union of India, the Supreme Court held that freedom of press entitles the media to achieve any volume of circulation and freedom, both in its circulation and content.

In the landmark case of Sakal Papers v. Union of India, the Supreme Court held that the Constitution permits the imposition of reasonable restrictions only within the grounds expressly stated within Article 19(2). These include security of state; friendly relations with foreign states; public order; decency or morality; contempt of court; defamation; incitement to an offence; and sovereignty and integrity of India.

The apex court opined that if a law does not fall within these grounds and abridges the right to freedom of speech and expression, then it is liable to be declared void.

Several professional bodies, including the Editors’ Guild of India, are seriously concerned about the behaviour of a section of the media and the inevitable fall out of all this is that “others” now seek to regulate. The media industry too is not oblivious of the tremendous pressures to self-regulate and set its house in order.

The NDA government has been adopting a very cautious approach in dealing with the highly sensitive Indian media. So far it appears to favour persuasion rather than the imposition of statutory regulation in any form. Even the previous UPA government had been unhappy about a “free-for-all” in the name of free media.

Lord Denning, a famous British judge, in his famous book, Road to Justice, observed that the “press is the watchdog and that even the watchdog may sometimes break loose and has to be punished for misbehaviour”.

The government, which sometimes appears eager to rein in the media, may like to study the report of the Lord Justice Leveson public inquiry which was set up by then British Prime Minister David Cameron in the wake of the infamous phone hacking scandal. The Justice Leveson public inquiry was asked to look into phone hacking and police bribery by the News of the World. It alsoconsidered the culture, practices and ethics of the wider British media. The Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid News of the World was found involved in the phone hacking scandal, which rocked the British government and jolted public opinion across the world. Several high-profile heads rolled when the story behind the scandal unfolded. The Justice Leveson inquiry recommended a statutory independent regulatory mechanism with powers to enforce its decisions on the media in all its manifestations. The report castigated the British media for its behaviour which it said often “wreaked havoc” in the lives of innocent people. 

The Indian media has also often drawn flak from various quarters for “sensationalism” and “trivialisation”. Intemperate language used by some politicians and social activists reflecting their gender and community bias has invariably underlined the need for the media to scrupulously avoid devoting precious time and space to “non-issues” which may be of interest to certain segments of the society but do not serve the public interest.

Several professional media bodies have been pressing for the setting up of a Media Commission on the lines of the First Press Commission and the Second Press Commission for an extensive review of the entire media industry. The proposed Media Commission may recommend, among other things, the setting up of a Media Council of India, replacing the existing Press Council, which has the mandate to regulate only print media. The jurisdiction of the proposed Media Council may include all types of media—print, electronic and the Internet/social media. But the idea has failed to take off in the face of stiff resistance from the industry.

The News Broadcasters Association (NBA), a private association of different current affairs and news television broadcasters in India, and the Indian Newspapers Society (INS), representing the print media industry, for long have enjoyed considerable clout in the corridors of power. Together they have been lobbying hard against the setting up of a Media Commission which may review the functioning of all segments of the media and address other important issues including cross-media ownership, paid news syndrome, press-politician relationship, monopolistic TV rating points, concentration of advertisement, the wage structure for employees in the media industry, etc.

The first Press Commission set up by the Nehru government in 1952 looked into the control, management and ownership, the financial structure as well as other aspects of the newspaper industry. It recommended the appointment of the Registrar of Newspapers for India (RNI), setting up of a Press Council of India and the enactment of the Working Journalists’ Act, besides other things. The Second Press Commission was set up by the Janata Party government, headed by Morarji Desai, in 1978. The Commission in its report wanted the media to play a responsible role in the development process. The Press Council of India was reconstituted as per recommendations of the Second Press Commission.

The media industry, both electronic and print, would like us to believe that the question as to how the media can and should focus its enormous strength and reach on developmental reporting and positive news interests could be addressed only through self-regulation. The Indian Broadcasting Foundation (IBF) is India’s apex organization of television broadcasters. It promotes the interests of the Indian television industry and provides a meeting ground to ensure that its members work in consensus to achieve common goals and have a common platform to air grievances and arrive at solutions. The IBF has adopted a programme code. It has empowered the Broadcasting Content Complaints Council (BCCC) to impose fines on TV channels found violating the programme code.

A few channels have already been faced with financial penalty for screening obscene content and directed to tender an on-screen apology for violating the programme code. The BCCC has also been regularly issuing advisories to TV channels cautioning them about their content, particularly depicting victims of incidents of rape and acid attacks on women and girls, stereotyping of women in general and the portrayal of minority communities. But all these measures on self-regulation appear “clumsy” and the paradigm of self-regulation needs to be strengthened by reviewing this model.

It is a catch-22 situation. Self-regulation without a statutory binding to enforce it among all the players of the game will be a half-hearted attempt to make the TV channels accountable to the people. And any legal framework would be rejected by the industry as violating the right to freedom of speech and expression. A way out has to be found for an effective and smooth functioning of the media as a potent weapon to strengthen Indian democracy. And then there is the phenomenal growth of the unregulated social media with the potential to breach privacy, create social disorder and pose a threat to national security.

An answer lies perhaps in the setting up of a Media Commission (another Press Commission) for a fresh look at the whole gamut of media functioning in India. It is the need of the hour. It may be headed by a sitting or retired judge of the Supreme Court of India and its findings binding on all the stakeholders. The proposed Media Commission may recommend a truly representative statutory Media Council in place of the existing Press Council. The proposed Media Council may encompass the media in all its dimensions with adequate provisions to enforce strict vigilance and discipline.

It may be possible sooner than later. What is required is a powerful public opinion in its favour and a strong political will on the part of our lawmakers.

The writer is a senior journalist and currently a part-time member of the Prasar Bharati Board. The views expressed are personal.

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Opinion

IT’S NOT JUST POLITICAL, IT’S ALSO PERSONAL

Priya Sahgal

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The state of Bihar is all set to go to the polls next month but equally there is another interesting battle that will take place around the same time. This is the slew of bypolls slated for 28 seats in Madhya Pradesh where the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government rules with a wafer-thin majority. Of these 28 seats the BJP needs 9 seats to cross the halfway mark on its own; and just two seats to continue in government with the help of its current allies: Currently, the BJP has 107 seats in the 230-strong Assembly. It also has the support of four Independents, two BSP MLAs and one suspended SP MLA. Since these are fickle allies who will switch sides with anyone who has the numbers, the BJP is keen to get a simple majority on its own and is targeting nine seats at the very least. For a government in the saddle, that is not too difficult an ask.

But the Opposition led by former CM Kamal Nath seems surprisingly confident, though the Congress has a much more difficult task. After Jyotiraditya Scindia defected to the BJP with his faction, the party is now reduced to 88 seats. Ideally it should win all 28 to cross the halfway mark, but even if it wins around 20 odd seats, it is confident of wooing away some of the smaller allies and independent MLAs from the BJP to wrest back the government.

However, this is not the twist in the tale for until now this is just a fight between an incumbent and a former Chief Minister. The story gets interesting when you add Scindia into the mix, for unlike Chauhan versus Nath which is a straightforward electoral battle, the Scindia versus Nath fight is very personal. Even before Scindia destabilised the Nath government, the two were rivals, for the former always saw himself as the rightful claimant to the CM’s chair while both Nath and Digviijaya Singh saw his as a bit of a pretender who whiled away his time in Delhi and only showed up to claim the prize. This interestingly is a turf war that dates back to Jyotiraditya’s father, the late Madhavrao Scindia’s time when Nath backed Digvijaya’s candidature as Chief Minister over Scindia senior’s claims in 1993.

These bypolls are as crucial for Jyotiraditya as they are for Shivraj and Kamal Nath. As many as 16 of the 28 bypoll seats are from the Gwalior-Chambal region, which is touted as his stronghold. The BJP tickets have been given to the Congress rebels who switched sides with him, thereby upsetting the BJP leaders in the area. Most of the thwarted BJP candidates have been accommodated by Nath, either within the Congress or they have his support as independents. According to senior journalist Rasheed Kidwai, “Nath has deputed a party worker for every 20 voters, he has a band of two lakh fifty thousand workers for these 28 bypolls.” This is the same formula he had used to win the 2018 state polls as well, taking on Amit Shah’s panna pramukh model with his own.

Since Scindia has not yet been accommodated in the Modi cabinet, a lot will depend on how he performs at the ground level. The cabinet reshuffle at the Centre is slated to take place after the Bihar and MP elections. And apart from Nath, he also has to take on the discontent within the state BJP which is not too happy to have ‘Maharajah’ thrusted upon them. Both the PM and the Home Minister are staying out of the bypolls, preferring to focus their energies on the Bihar elections. This leaves the field clear for the state BJP which recently came out with a star campaigners list that had Jyotiraditya as low as Number 10 with others like V.D. Sharma (state BJP chief) and Narender Singh Tomar above him. The message is not lost on those who recall that when he was with the Congress, Scindia headed the campaign committee. Equally telling is the fact that Scindia’s face is not there amongst the official BJP posters.

For Nath too, the stakes are high. This could be his last shot at relevance for one is not sure if the Congress would project him as the CM candidate in the next state elections due in 2023. He knows this and has been working hard throughout the lockdown. His team seems confident of winning at least twenty of these bypolls. and though there are WhatsApp videos being circulated by the Scindia camp to show the empty seats at Nath’s rallies, the latter’s supporters point out that these are seats at the fag-end of the tent and that too during corona times. They instead talk of his confident body language and the fact that he is leading the campaign from the front. And there are also WhatsApp videos of Scindia being greeted with Murdabad cries that are in circulation, only one is not sure whether these are from the Congress or sent by his newfound BJP colleagues.

And so while the media focus is on the Bihar polls, there is an equally interesting and high voltage battle being fought in Madhya Pradesh with the theatre of action being the Gwalior-Chambal region

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Opinion

A Requiem for a daughter !

Surendra Kumar

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Satyameva Jayate! Truth alone triumphs! This line is inscribed on the national emblem. It means what it says. But is this true today? Which is the real truth? The one seen by us, the bystanders? The truth captured by cameras? The truth as experienced by the victim? The truth as narrated by the perpetrators? Or the truth as manufactured by the authorities? The truth as presented by the spin doctors to save the guilty? Are there multiple versions of truths on account of play of Maya? Why should truth be wrapped in mystery? Why should it unravel in so many facets as the murder in Kurosawa’s masterpiece Rasoman? Or truth is like an onion, as one peels off layers after layers; one inhales pungent smell and gets tears in eyes but find nothing! Or truth is like an elephant that eight blind persons try to describe by touching different parts?

Well, truth is always one.Those who want to present it, describe it as they see it: seeing is believing! But those who want to hide it for their own reasons, obfuscate facts; rather manufacture facts to weaken the case of the victim and strengthen the case of the perpetrator!

A rape is the most heinous crime against women. It’s humiliating and traumatizing beyond words. Dalit women are raped in rural India at will and left to die as they are most vulnerable. Their complaints aren’t registered in normal course, they are pressured & threatened of dire consequences including harm to their families which are intimidated, manipulated and offered monetary swap for hushing the case. The men in khaki and other investigating agencies have no interest in getting to the bottom of a case; unearth the truth and getting the culprits punished .Their modus operandi and whole narrative unfolds as per the directives of their Puppeteers: Political masters.

And political masters’ entire endeavour is to protect their supporters, save their skin, save their kursi and save the image of their party and garner political mileage  even out of a rape case. Finding truth is farthest from their minds.

A rape is not a rape as there is no evidence. Advocates of this theory disregard the known reality that vaginal evidence of rape can’t be found after 12 days. Dying declaration is deliberately ignored. All chances of recovery of any forensic evidence are burnt in wee hour cremation of the dead body of the rape victim. What could be crueler than stopping a wailing mother from seeing the face of her dead daughter?

Political leaders who could do nothing to save the rape victim descend at her village, squat on the ground with family, shed some crocodile tears, mouth some practiced platitudes demand the dismissal of the Govt of the state. Those who show much stronger solidarity are booked under draconian laws and accused of receiving funds from abroad and hob knobbing with the enemies of the nation & declared anti-national!

When a Nirbhaya is raped in Delhi, it shakes the whole nation, a slew of laws are enacted .The courts continue their proceedings at snail’s speed; the Rapists are eventually punished after 12 years! But the rapists of the Dalit Nirbahya of Hathras might never be punished as there was allegedly no rape! Even if it was proved, who cares? After all, she was a Dalit !

In the meanwhile, we continue shouting from the roof top: Vasudhaiva kutumbkam!  Mera Bharat Mahan!

Beti bachao! beti padao! 

The author, a former Ambassador, writes on political and strategic affairs.

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Partisan talk by MPs internationally not helping

Joyeeta Basu

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Members of Parliament, when they are speaking at international platforms, should paint a fair picture of their country to an audience that is unlikely to know much about the ground reality. This applies to even Opposition MPs, who should try to appear impartial, instead of coming across as partisan and intent on scoring points against the government of the day. As else, in the process, they may go on to denigrate their own country. When an MP from the world’s most populous democracy addresses an international audience, he or she adds legitimacy to the claims he/she is making. The problem starts when such claims are outrageous, divisive and may instigate the gullible into taking action. 

Asaduddin Owaisi of the AIMIM, who is MP from Hyderabad, was recently reported to have made wild charges of pogrom of Muslims in India at a conference named “The Stories of Muslims Lynched and Oppressed under the Hindutva Regime”, organised by an Islamist outfit, Islamic Society of North America. So an Indian lawmaker claimed of minority oppression in his country from an Islamist platform and added muscle to the narrative of “oppressive” India, without bothering about the effect this might have on the radicalised, who may take it as a cue to take to arms and disturb peace in this country. 

Moreover, the sub-text of such a message was in keeping with Jinnah’s Two-Nation theory— that Hindus and Muslims cannot stay together and that Muslims need a separate nation to survive. In fact, this divisive message was at the core of the Thiruvananthapuram MP, Shashi Tharoor’s recent speech to a Pakistani audience as well. His language may not have been as “intemperate” as Owaisi’s, but to claim on a Pakistani platform that the Tablighi Jamaat “super spreader” event was used as a means “to justify open bigotry and discrimination against Muslims”, is not only to speak a blatant untruth, but also sends out a subliminal message justifying the partition of India and creation of Pakistan— that the Muslim community cannot be safe in a Hindu majority country.

 Ever since the Narendra Modi government has come to power, first in 2014 and then again in 2019, the forces arrayed against it have stitched up a narrative of intolerant India, with selective outrage over incidents of reprehensible violence against the minority community, thus trying to prove such incidents as the rule and not aberrations, which they are. This narrative has been sold globally by forces from within the country, so much so that USCIRF, in an outrageous move, has branded the world’s largest democracy as a “country of particular concern”, along with authoritarian powers and sham democracies such as China, North Korea and Pakistan. The intention of such propaganda is clear: to create enough doubts about India under PM Modi, so that it ultimately creates uncertainty and brings the country under attack at different fora—apart from hurting its prospect of attracting investments. 

The idea also is to scare the minorities with the propaganda that their existence is under threat, and thus create unrest, the way it happened after the passage of the CAA. It is in this context that Tharoor’s use of words such as “bigotry” and “discrimination” has to be seen—they are part of the larger narrative that the outof-power has been building. However, the flippant use of such words is best avoided, for they do not reflect the reality on the ground. It is also ironic that these words were uttered on a Pakistani platform—a country whose minorities have almost ceased to exist, unlike in India, where their population is burgeoning. 

Parliamentarians are expected to show better sense than this, and this applies to both sides of the political divide. In this context, a quick mention must be made of Farooq Abdullah. It is sad to see a veteran Parliamentarian, a former Cabinet Minister with Government of India and a former Chief Minister of an Indian state screaming “China” from the rooftops, seeking its intervention in the matter of Article 370! Surely someone like him can be more responsible in what he says. Words have repercussions and should be uttered with care.

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Opinion

PM Modi’s massive reform to honour the honest taxpayers

With a non intrusive and impartial tax charter, which will henceforth work with the basic
assumption that a taxpayer is honest and not otherwise, India has joined a handful of
countries like the US, Australia and Canada which have such a provision in their laws.

Sanju Verma

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Ease of doing business (EoDB) has been high on the Modi government’s agenda—India’s EoDB ranking improved dramatically from 142 in 2014 to 63 in 2019. The new taxpayer charter, which is seamless, faceless and painless, is aimed at making life easier for businesses and taxpayers, via faceless appeals and faceless assessments, giving the concept of “minimum government, maximum governance”, an entirely new dimension altogether. 

The said charter, expected to have statutory status and empower citizens by not only ensuring timebound services by the Income Tax department, but also that taxpayers are treated with the dignity they deserve, fixes accountability of tax officials, who have often been accused of high handed behaviour. As per a report by Deloitte, there are over Rs 4.96 lakh crore worth of income tax claims locked in litigation, with the Income Tax Appellate Tribunal (ITAT) having 92,338 pending cases, High Courts, 38,481 cases and the Supreme Court, 6,357 cases. Tax litigations are largely the result of shoddy tax compliance and evasion, stemming from a poor tax code. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s taxpayer charter, therefore, is a gigantic reform, to foster mutual trust between taxpayers and tax administration. 

Effective from 13 August 2020, the faceless assessment scheme aims at obliterating human interface between Income tax department and taxpayer. The taxpayer is selected randomly through a system using Artificial Intelligence (AI) and data analytics. Territorial jurisdiction is also abolished. Faceless appeal facility will be applicable from 25 September 2020, to check corruption and arbitrariness. Under faceless appeal, in case of a complaint, taxpayers will have the right to appeal to the officer, selected in a random manner. No one will know who the officer is. The tax assessee also need not visit any office in person. 

A team of officers will take a final decision on the appeal and taxpayers will also have the right to get it reviewed. Direct tax reforms started meaningfully after the Modi government slashed the basic corporate tax rate to 22% from 30%, in September 2019, akin to a fiscal stimulus of Rs 1.45 lakh crore. Effective tax rate with all surcharges came to 25.17%. For  new manufacturing companies that start production before March 2023 and incorporated on or after 1st October 2019, corporate tax rate was reduced to 15% from 25%. Minimum alternate tax (MAT) was also lowered from 18.5% to 15%. Union Budget 2020 gave taxpayers the option to choose between the existing Income tax regime (which allows all existing tax exemptions and deductions) and a new tax regime with slashed income tax rates and new tax slabs. New tax regime offers lower rates, but equally, it removes over 70 tax exemptions, to simplify the tax structure and ease compliance burden.

 Therefore, under the new tax regime, the basic exemption limit will remain Rs 2.5 lakh for all taxpayers, irrespective of their age. In a progressive move, the Modi government has retained 50 odd exemptions including standard deduction on rent, agricultural income, income from life insurance, retrenchment compensation, VRS proceeds and leave encashment on retirement, even under the new tax regime. Speaking of a wider tax net, if any government in the future has the conviction to tax agricultural income, it is the Modi government. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a rare leader who has the courage and fortitude to do what needs to be done, without paying obeisance to political correctness. 

Agricultural income is defined under Section 2(1A) of the Income Tax Act, 1961, as income earned or revenue derived from sources that include farming land, buildings on or identified with agricultural land and commercial produce from horticultural land. However, the very classification of agrarian income needs to be re-defined so that there is an end to the practice of those evading taxes, under the garb of being hapless farmers. Speaking of tax charter, the tax department shall not disclose any information provided by taxpayers to the department, unless authorized by law and the tax department shall allow every taxpayer to choose an authorised representative (AR) of his or her choice. The tax department shall also publish standards for service delivery in a periodic manner and provide a mechanism to taxpayers, for impartial and prompt disposal of complaints in a time bound manner. 

Cases will be allocated on an automated random basis, with no physical interface and taxpayers need not visit the income tax office. Draft assessment could be in one city, review in another city and finalisation in an altogether new city, giving a new meaning to the concept of a transparent tax system, that PM Modi, has inked. The Union Budget 2020 took the bold step of abolishing the dividend distribution tax (DDT), thereby enabling Indian companies to share their entire distributable profits with shareholders. Earlier companies had to pay tax at an effective rate of 20.56% on their distributable profits. Effectively, out of every Rs 100 in distributable profits, companies had to pay Rs 20.56 as tax, with only Rs 79.44 left for distribution to shareholders, which is not the case any longer.

 Also, enhanced surcharge, announced in the Budget earlier this year, will not apply to capital gains arising on sale of equity share in a company or a unit of an equity oriented fund or unit of a business trust liable, to pay STT. Now, retail shareholders with a total income up to Rs 10 lakh a year will benefit the most from DDT abolition, as they no longer need to suffer the flat 20.56% imposition on their dividend receipts and they will be taxed only at their much lower, applicable slab rates. 

However, those in the more than 20% tax bracket will shell out a higher effective tax on their dividends, instead of a flat 20.56%, now that DDT is gone. For example, most of the promoters of big Indian companies, who are likely to fall in the Rs 5 crore or higher income slab, will have to pay 42.74% effective tax on dividends, now that DDT is gone. But promoters should not be complaining, as India now has amongst the lowest corporate tax rates globally, thanks to PM Modi’s unprecedented and bold, taxation reforms. By implementing the new DDT mechanism, the Modi government listened to long-standing demands of Foreign Portfolio Investors (FPIs) who were disadvantaged due to their inability to avail tax credit in their home countries.

 Effect of the new DDT regime would be net positive to a large pool of retail investors who do not have significant dividend income and in any case fall under lower tax slabs. There was concern that Insurance companies and other corporate investors in stocks who do not enjoy a pass-through status like mutual funds may see a dent to their incomes as they now have to pay tax on dividends at the corporate tax rate. However, there is respite to these entities too, as Section 80M benefits would be applicable to them that allows these companies to net out dividends they distribute to their shareholders, from the dividend income they receive while paying corporate tax. Foreign Portfolio Investors (FPIs) structured as corporates can now pay tax on dividends earned in India at either 20% or lower rates, specified in tax treaties inked by their home countries. 

These rates can be as low as 5% in some cases. Foreign companies that receive dividends from their Indian subsidiaries will also enjoy a regime similar to corporate FPIs. NRI investors and FPIs structured as non corporates will not reap the benefit of the 20% tax rate on dividends enjoyed by other foreign investors and may need to pay taxes at their slab rates. As an added sweetener, many of them can now claim credit for taxes paid on dividends received in India when assessed for corporate tax back home, this set-off wasn’t available with the DDT. One of the less talked about but path-breaking steps by the Modi government is with respect to removal of double taxation of ESOPs, which are meant to reward the team that helps build a successful enterprise.

 Hitherto, employees were taxed even for simply signing up for ESOPs as per a vesting schedule, by treating these options as perks. ESOPs should not be taxed on notional gains but only on realised gains, when an employee has realised a benefit by selling them. In other words, earlier ESOPs were taxed both at the time of allocation and then again at the time of sale, but the Modi government removed this anomaly, in an excellent move aimed at encouraging entrepreneurship, harnessing available talent pool and rewarding the outperformers. To cut a long story short, right since PM Modi’s first term in office, tremendous progress has been achieved in terms of simplification of taxes.

 Reduction in tax rate from 10% to 5% for income slab between Rs 2.5-5 lakh per annum, rise in basic exemption limit from Rs 2 lakh to Rs 2.5 lakh and abolition of wealth tax, have been timely measures. Also, startups with turnover of up to Rs 100 crore are allowed 100% deduction on profits for three consecutive assessment years, out of ten, to encourage entrepreneurship, besides benefits like five-year deferment of tax on employee stock options (ESOPs).

 Last but not the least, with a non intrusive and impartial tax charter, which will henceforth work with the basic assumption that a taxpayer is honest and not otherwise, India has joined a handful of countries like the US, Australia and Canada which have such a provision in their laws. Going forward, by removing arbitrariness, the taxpayer charter of the visionary Modi government will ensure that tax authorities have as much skin in the game as honest taxpayers. 

Sanju Verma is an economist, national spokesperson for the BJP and bestselling author of ‘Truth & Dare: The Modi Dynamic’. The views expressed are personal

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Opinion

Release the salaries of 12 Delhi government-funded colleges

Pankaj Vohra

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The Delhi University Principals’ Association has urged Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal to release the grant in aid for the 12 fully funded colleges, so that salaries of the teaching and non-teaching staff can be released without any further delay. The Association has also sought the intervention of the Vice Chancellor to take up the matter with the highest authorities in the university, since the government’s decision in withholding the grant was illegal, and in violation of the norms laid down by the University Grants Commission. The issue pertains to the colleges which receive 100 percent aid from the Delhi government, and include some institutions such as Shaheed Sukhdev College of Business Studies, that have made a mark, both at the national and international level. The Aam Aadmi Party during the run up to the poll campaign had received tremendous support for its initiatives in various spheres, including power and water supply, mohalla clinics and education. There is no doubt that the AAP administration had done exemplary work in these areas, and it was in recognition of its commitment that people of the city made it victorious once again with a thumping majority.

 Both in school and college education, the AAP has achieved many times more than its predecessor governments, and therefore must address this serious problem regarding the payment of salaries to its colleges now. For some odd reason, the Delhi government has issued an “Order/Permission” to the college administrations to exhaust the students’ money, accumulated over many years under the Students Society Fund, which is meant for the activities such as campus placements, skill enhancement, career counselling and gender sensitisation. This fund is also utilised in meeting the expenditure of the students with special needs, extracurricular activities, cultural functions, student exchange programmes, training the women students for selfdefence and maintenance of classroom infrastructure for which no grants are available. The direction that Grants in Aid (GIA) for the salaries will only be released after the Students Society Fund is exhausted will completely stop the activities for ability enhancement, soft skill learning and promotion of cross-cultural understanding among the students, so imperative for the comprehensive personality development.

 The Principals’ Association has also condemned the linkage between conduct of special audit and the release of GIA for salary. It has observed that audit was a routine affair and already three types of audit (Statutory audit, LFA audit of GNCTD, and CAG) are conducted periodically and as such no such linkage has ever existed. The contention that GIA would be released after the completion of the special audit is illegal and against the current practices and rules. These are difficult times but it is does not mean that the administration should come out with ideas which are contrary to the objectives, that served as the guiding principles, when these institutions were opened. In fact, the Delhi government colleges, have been doing exceedingly well, and in many ways are at par with institutions which are much older, and thus enjoy reputation built over the years. The CM should get this matter examined and resolved at the earliest. This would be in the interest of his own government, which he has run with efficiency and dedication.

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