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Opinion

The post-colonial problem of elephantine proportions

The latter half of the 20th century exerted great pressure on the natural habitat of Asian jumbos. Both elephants and human beings have fallen victims in the crisis that ensued.

PRIYADARSHI DUTTA

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A mahout with his elephant on a highway near Kaziranga National Park, in Assam. ANI

The death of an elephant in Kerala’s Palakkad district recently outraged the nation’s conscience. The autopsy proved she had consumed an explosive filled coconut, earlier believed to be pineapple, meant to scare off wild boars from eating crops. Whether it was a deliberate act of mischief or an accident remains to be ascertained. The pregnant elephant became the face of tragedy as she gave up life standing trunk deep in a river.

Sadly this is one side of the story. In a different district of Kerala, viz. Kannur, the government is planning to construct a wall at a cost of Rs 22 crore to shield elephants from Aralam Farm sanctuary raiding nearby villages frequently. Curiously, the fund is being provided by Kerala’s Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Development Department. In neighbouring Karanataka video clip of a school girl named Vismaya, from Sakleshpur taluka of Hassan district, went viral last November. She was seen appealing to Chief Minister B.S. Yediyurappa to protect their village from recurrent forays of elephants. In the last 10 years, 60 people have died in Hassan district in elephant attacks.

Loss of human life, property and crops are often reported in elephant depredation. Both elephants and human beings are falling victims to a conflict situation. This would be evident from the figures presented in Parliament in recent past. The tally of human casualty stood at 516 (2016-17), 506 (2017-18) and 452 (2018-2019) in manelephant conflict. The Central government provides ex-gratia payments in case of death/permanent incapacitation, grievous and minor injuries, and loss of property/crops, etc, in such cases. While human deaths seem to moderate the total compensation has varied 14.95 crore (2016-17), 18.21 crore (2017- 18) and 14.98 crore (2018-19). This was informed by Babul Supriyo, MoS, Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, in the Lok Sabha (vide Unstarred Question No. February 7, 2020). A Task Force in 2010 found that two out of every three rupees spent on elephant protection in India deals directly or indirectly with elephant-human conflict.

Every year, on an average, one hundred elephants also die in India due to train accidents, electrocution, poaching and poisoning. The population of wild elephants in India as per last synchronised elephant estimation (2017) is 29,964. The next estimation is due in 2022. The figures of estimations in 2007, 2012 and 2017 point towards fluctuating elephant population. There has been a decline of elephant population between 2012 and 2017 from 29,391 (lowest estimate) to 27,321. The Arthashatra, Asokan pillar edicts and the Elephant Preservation Act, 1879 in colonial times speak of state’s concern for protecting elephants down the ages. A “Project Elephant”, on the lines of “Project Tiger”, has been in operation since 1991.

Almost 30 years ago Douglas H. Chadwick, the illustrious American biologist, author and photographer, tracked the condition of the elephants across Africa and Asia. In his book, The Fate of the Elephant (Penguin-Viking, 1992), he opines that it is at once discouraging and hopeful that India holds between 35% and 50% of all elephants in Asia. Discouraging because it shows how few elephants are left in the wild. The contemporaneous figure that Chadwick cites for Asian elephants is 35,000 and 55,000 besides 16,000 in captivity.

However, Chadwick had reasons to be hopeful at the same time. That India, despite her burgeoning population, could still hold between 17,000 and 22,000 wild elephants might reveal something very important about how to co-exist with those giants in an overcrowded world. India’s population is larger than entire Africa’s, but land size one-tenth. If three decades later elephant population has grown, in tandem with human demography, it shows India has not done a bad job.

Elephants have historically commanded an imperial status in India. They used to be part of regular army from the days of the Mahabharata to the beginning of Mughal era. During the British era, when hunting was legal pastime, elephants were used as mount. Princely states groomed elephants for peasantry. The post-colonial era came as catastrophe for the elephants both in Asia and Africa. This has little to do with end of imperialism and spread of democracy or rise of despotism. The postcolonial era everywhere was dominated by discourse of development even at the cost of environment. New urban projects meant reduction of forest cover, and consequential loss of natural habitat for the elephants. The illegal trade in ivory also took its toll on elephant population. Ajay A. Desai and Heidi S. Riddle in their study, “Human-Elephant Conflict in Asia” (2015), say that the estimated original range of Asian elephant had declined from nine million sq km to mere half a million sq km. The problem of wild elephant habitats attained serious proportions in the second half of the twentieth century. Desai and Riddle cites that forest cover in Sri Lanka declined from 44% in 1956 to 22% in 1988. Cambodia saw a rapid decline of forest cover in 73% in 1970 to 53% in 2000. In the same period Mynamar’s forest cover declined from 47% to 36%.

Elephants tend to migrate, seasonally or otherwise, from one natural habitat to another in search of food. The lean patch they pass through is termed corridor. The numbers of such corridors are on the rise as habitats degenerate and fragment. Between 2005 and 2017 the number of elephant corridors in India has gone up from 88 to 101, which describes a general trend. These elephant corridors enjoy no legal protection under the Wildlife (Protection) Act or the Environment (Protection) Act. Nor is the government in a position to secure the same by purchasing the entire real estate. The level of elephant-human conflict is more pronounced in the states like West Bengal, Assam, Odisha, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh than in the South.

The then UPA-II government had constituted a task force in 2010 on the elephants chaired by Dr Mahesh Rangrajan. The report of the task force titled “Gajah” advocated India to take a global lead in elephant conversation. The task force advocated that India should convene first ever International Elephant Congress with conclaves on science, culture and management that would lay down a vision for the next 50 years in 50 range countries of the world. Second, it also advocated exchange of ideas, expertise and good practices of managing elephant ranges. The report also advocated India proposing a United Nations Day for Elephants. It also proposed trans-boundary cooperation through an Asian Elephant Forum whereby India could cooperate with Bhutan, Nepal at the earliest and Bangladesh and Myanmar subsequently to achieve trans-border elephant landscapes.

 The report felt there was a need to declare Asian elephant as India’s national heritage animal, and involving people in the campaign to save elephants. Sadly, the recommendations of the report are gathering dust in bureaucratic labyrinth. Will the killing of the she elephant in Kerala ignite the movement that “Gajah” envisaged a decade ago?

The author is a writer and independent researcher based in New Delhi. The views expressed herein are his 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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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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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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