Opinion – Indian ‘Speaker’ should emulate the British ‘Speaker’

The office of Speaker of Lok Sabha is a Constitutional authority and enjoys a great deal of powers along with a greater deal of responsibilities. The Speaker of Lok Sabha is elected by the members of Lok Sabha from amongst themselves. Convention has it that he/she is from the ruling political party. However, unlike the office of Speaker of House of Commons of the British Parliament, the Speaker of Lok Sabha continues to be a member of the political party from which he/she got elected into the House. This needs to be changed and the Constitution needs to be suitable amended so that after election as the Speaker of Lok Sabha, he/she must resign from the political party.

This is to ensure that the Speaker acts in an unbiased manner. Below are some examples where lack of such a provision led to foul play.

  • Defection – Many times it has been alleged that the Speaker who decides the question of disqualification over defection had acted in a biased manner. For example, the Speaker of Legislative Assembly of Bihar disqualified 4 MLAs on the grounds of defection for not voting in Rajya Sabha elections as per their political party’s choice. It was only after the Patna High Court’s intervention which had clarified that there is a difference between ‘defection’ and ‘dissent’, that their disqualification was cancelled.
  • Ensuring discipline in the House – the 15th Lok Sabha has been the most unproductive House since independence owing to the disruptions and lack of discipline among the elected representatives. The Speaker is empowered to initiate disciplinary action against the disrupting MPs, but had failed to do so. Thus the Speaker should be blamed to some extent for lack of discipline in the house.
  • Misuse of ‘Money Bill’ power – The Speaker has the power to decide if a bill is a money bill or not, and such a decision cannot be questioned in the court of law, or either house of Parliament or even by the President. Recently, in the budget session the government had included amendments to the RBI Act in a Finance Bill so as to circumvent the ‘obstructionism’ of Rajya Sabha, where the government is not in a majority. Although this was later withdrawn, it opens the scope for potential misuse of the Money Bill path in the future.
  • Conferring Leader of Opposition of Lok Sabha – This was denied to the Congress party by the Speaker on the grounds that the Leader of Opposition must belong to the political party with atleast 10% of seats in the house as per the “Directions to Speaker of Lok Sabha”, even though such a criteria was not included in the “Salaries and Allowances of Leaders of Opposition in Parliament Act”. When the Speaker had a choice, she must have conferred the post instead of choosing to keep it vacant as it is an important post to keep a check on the government.

The above examples demonstrate the need to make the Speaker resign from the political party soon after being elected as the Speaker so as to ensure the smooth, fair and unbiased functioning of the office and, in turn, the House.

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Opinion – Neutralising terrorists with terrorists!

The movie ‘Haider’ shows this as a reality – that the Indian Army recruits and trains a group of terrorists who would neutralise the real terrorists. The recent comments of Union Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar of using the same strategy evoked a debate on the issue. This is being supported on the grounds that “a thorn should be removed from a leg with another thorn”. Well I feel it is an outdated saying that doesn’t fare well in the modern world, because it is not a raw thorn that should be used, but rather a sterilised pair of tweezers or some medical equipment of the sorts, to remove the thorn stuck in the leg. It is the task of a well trained medical practitioner to remove the thorn using the appropriate safe medical equipment so as to not inflict new wounds/infections by using another raw thorn.

Keeping the euphemism aside, it is not terrorists who should be used to neutralise terrorists. Terrorists by their very nature do not owe allegiance to anyone nor can they be controlled by anyone. A classic example to demonstrate the same is the present situation of Pakistan. Long had it been using terrorism as a tool against India, only to be self-inflicted with more wounds than the damage it had caused to India. A superpower like USA is also not above a similar fate, when it had once “allegedly” supported the Talibans of Afghanistan. The Salwa Judum is yet another such example in our own country. It had inflicted more wounds than the problems that it solved. The Supreme Court ruled that it is in violation of articles 14 and 21, and gross neglect of fundamental rights of the people. India cannot afford to ignore some such important lessons that history had taught us and cannot even think of tolerating terrorism in any form. How to handle terrorism is a topic for another discussion and answers to which are not difficult to be found. “Terrorism” is certainly not one of them.

Opinion – Is 21st Century the dusk of Bretton Woods Institutions?

A number of regional banking institutions like the New Development Bank (NDB), BRICS Contingency Reserve Arrangement (CRA), Asian Development Bank (ADB) and Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) have emerged, all of which India has been a part of. There has been a growing perception that the emergence of these institutions is a consequence of the failure of the Bretton Woods Institutions (BWI) and thus, these institutions would eventually undermine and possibly even replace the BWIs of World Bank and IMF.

There is no iota of doubt that the BWIs, driven by the western vested interests, have largely failed to accommodate the aspirations of the developing and less developed economies of the world. For example, these institutions have failed to implement reforms like the IMF quota reforms, which will increase the voice of emerging nations in the functioning of the BWIs. Despite making several appeals by the G20 nations these reforms are yet to see the light. Also, there is a growing belief that the assistance provided by the BWIs comes with several strings attached so as to play the assisted economies to the tunes of the western interests. For example, a bailout package of IMF comes with severe austerity measures which will benefit the free market forces. Since the developed economies are more competitive, they will be benefited by these free market forces. It is also interesting to note that the Ukraine crisis had began over the question of Ukraine signing an agreement with EU that would provide a bailout package by IMF.

Under these circumstances, the emerging nations of the world have come up with several regional financial institutions like the ones mentioned earlier. But it would be unwise to arrive at a conclusion that the disguised agenda behind them is to undermine and ultimately replace the BWIs. BWIs have a membership of over 180 nations. Compare this to the NDB (and CRA) whose membership is just 5 (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa); AIIB whose membership is a little over 20, and can at best grow close to 30. The scope of these regional institutions is also very narrow. For example, NDB and AIIB only provide funding for infrastructure projects, while BWIs would in addition provide funding for development activities, bailout packages for nations facing balance of payments (BoP) crises etc. Also the capital of these regional institutions (Ex: AIIB – capital of $100 billion) is too weak to undermine the BWIs.

The emergence of these regional institutions must be considered in the light of the changing global dynamics. In this era of “Asian Century” these new institutions aim to meet the specific developmental needs of the Asian and emerging economies. They would diversify the sources of funding which will reduce the burden on the BWIs. Also, the emerging nations can now use these new institutions as new platforms to build consensus between them and act together to push for the long pending reforms of BWIs. Thus, their role is complementary and not contradictory to that of BWIs.

The 21st Century thus does not mark the dusk of BWIs, but mark the dawn of reformed BWIs.

Opinion – Is Direct Benefit Transfer the way to go?

The Economic Survey projects the JAM trinity as the tool to “wipe every tear from every eye”. This JAM trinity corresponds to Jan Dhan Yojana, Aadhaar Number and Mobile linking to facilitate the Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT). DBT is being touted as the panacea to the social security woes of the people of this country. However, there is another side of the story  which also needs to be told.

DBT offers the benefits of minimising leakages and corruption, greater coverage and better targeting – all of which will improve the efficiency of the public spending on subsidies. This will help in promoting the fiscal discipline of the government, which it has not been able to follow for various reasons (like the never ending postponement of fiscal deficit targets of FRBM Act). This will also advance financial inclusion to some extent and will cause minimum distortion to the market forces. For example, if DBT replaces the Public Distribution System (PDS) then trade distortion in food grains market will be reduced. Thus DBT is certainly desirable.

But, its implementation has several challenges like poor financial inclusion and unfavorable social attitudes. While the problem of financial inclusion may now be easily addressed with the progress made through Pradham Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana and Aadhaar scheme, the problem of social attitudes still loom large. For example, pregnant women and children are some of the important beneficiaries of the PDS through programmes like Janani Suraksha Yojana and Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) respectively. Thanks to these efforts that the nutritional requirements of women and children are being met to a large extent, if not fully. Now if we move away from PDS and towards DBT in a society which still doesn’t consider the nutrition of women (especially pregnant) and children (especially girls) as important, then it may prove counter productive with respect to the progress achieved so far. The transferred funds may no longer be used for intended purposes.

This makes it imperative that though the DBT is all the more desirable, it must be allowed in a gradual manner and must be accompanied by social awareness campaigns that would make these DBT transferred funds to be used for their intended purposes. It must be first allowed in those sectors where such social challenges do not exist – like in the case of LPG cylinders, and must be accompanied by social awareness campaigns in areas where the social challenges do exist.

Opinion – Towards Cooperative Federalism

“Cooperative Federalism” has become the new buzzword in the media today. This article pays attention to what this term means, its desirability and implications with a special focus on the “Economic Federalism”.

Cooperative Federalism

It refers to the emerging new form of federalism in India, where the States and Local Bodies play a greater role in the formulation of policies at the national, state and local body levels. It aims to create a synergy between the Centre, States and Local Bodies so that they work cooperatively and not blocking each other.

After 65 years of independence, the states are no longer in the same diffident position that they once were at the time of independence. For a large and diverse country like India, the needs and aspirations of her states would obviously be strikingly different. Thus there should be a greater voice and powers to the states to workout on her own set of priorities. For example, launching the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana or the Sarva Siksha Abhiyan for a state like Kerala would be futile, as her socio-economic indicators far exceed the targets set by these Central Sponsored Schemes. Cooperative Federalism allows the state to prioritise her needs and work towards satisfying them. However, there should some convergence between the goals and aspirations of the States and the Union so that the nation as a whole moves in a particular direction towards a common vision. Thus cooperative federalism is not about each state moving in its own direction, but about moving towards common long term goals allowing greater flexibility to the states in realising them.

Towards Cooperative Federalism

The newly elected government headed by a Prime Minister, who had served as the Chief Minister of Gujarat, had taken up several initiatives in pursuit of Cooperative Federalism. We shall now take a look at some of them in detail.

Scrapping of Planning Commission

The role of Planning Commission in approval of State Plans and devolution of discretionary Grants-in-aid based on Gadgil-Mukherjee formula has been one of the frictional points in the Centre-State financial relations. In this regard, the government’s decision to scrap this institution and replace it with a think-tank, the National Institution for Transforming India (NITI) Aayog is a positive move towards cooperative federalism.

Greater Financial Autonomy of the States

States have very limited taxation powers and thus are dependent on the Union for the financial support. There are three channels of fund transfers from Union to the States, which are:

  • Through the Finance Commission which includes (i) Share in Central pool of taxes and (ii) Statutory Grants-in-aid. These transfers correspond to about 60% of Union transfers to States.
  • Through Central Sponsored Schemes (CSS) which correspond to about 30-35% of the Union transfers to the States. These funds are made available to the States on various terms and conditions which the States must satisfy to receive them. These are being severely opposed by the States because in the absence of these schemes, the States would receive the same funds in unconditional format, which the States can use as per its own needs and priorities.
  • Remaining funds flow through Planning Commission in the form of Plan funds and “discretionary” Grants-in-aid.

In order to strengthen the financial position of the States, the 14th Finance Commission had made several recommendations which are accepted by the government. They are:

  • Vertical Devolution – Increase the share of States in the Central pool of divisible taxes from 32% to 42%. This significant jump will allow greater flow of unconditional funds to the States.
  • Horizontal Devolution – Formula based devolution of funds among the states which is based on factors like Population, area, forest cover, etc. Moving towards formula based and away from discretion will allow greater flow of unconditional funds to the States in a non-partisan manner.
  • Guidelines on transparent provision of various funds for disaster management under the National Disaster Management Act.
  • Allowing the funds to flow through the States for Local Bodies and doing away with the mechanism of transfer of funds directly to the implementing institutions bypassing the State government.
  • Setting up of an Institutional Mechanism for the devolution of sector-specific grants based on a transparent formula, moving away from the use of discretion.

This will significantly improve the financial autonomy of the states.

Greater Financial Autonomy of the Local Bodies

Local Bodies, unfortunately, have very poor abilities to raise its own revenues through taxes and other forms. As a result they are largely dependent on the Union and the State governments for financial support.

Mechanisms of funding for local bodies:

  • Grants and funds from the Centre
  • Grants and loans from the State
  • Resource mobilisation by the local bodies

Some of the recommendations of the Fourteenth Finance Commission in strengthening the fiscal position of the local bodies are as below:

  • Improve the resource mobilisation capabilities of the local bodies.
    • Tax Revenues
      • Devolution of greater taxation powers by the State over various subjects like Entertainment tax, tax of fairs and weekly markets, tax on advertisements (like hoardings etc.), vacant land tax, property tax and increasing the annual limit of tax on professions from Rs. 2,500 to Rs. 12,000 by suitably amending the Constitution.
      • Reforms in State Finance Commission in making recommendations on improving tax base and tax collection capabilities of the local bodies, besides allocating greater resources from States to the local bodies.
    • Non-tax revenues
      • Revenues from management of community resources like lakes, ponds, irrigation canals etc.
      • Collection of charges for provision of basic services like drinking water, sanitation, roads etc.
      • Share in royalties of mining activities.
      • Muni Bonds (Municipal Bonds) must be promoted which can improve the capabilities of the Urban local bodies to raise public capital for urban infrastructure.
  • Union grants to the local bodies must go through the State government.
  • Improving the audit and performance estimation mechanisms of the local bodies so as to improve their efficiency. Comptroller and Auditory General (CAG) must continue to render advice in this regard.

Central Sponsored Schemes

Central Sponsored Schemes (CSS) is one of the most frictional points in Indian federalism. CSS have been launched in order to drive the nation as a whole towards desirable goals using the expertise of the Centre.

Problems with the Central Sponsored Schemes:

  • Union’s encroachment on the State subjects of Schedule VII of Indian Constitution, as the Union has launched several CSS on States’ subjects like education (Sarva Siksha Abhiyan), agriculture (Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana) etc.
  • Undermining the role of the local bodies as often the CSS have been found to bypass them and setup their own implementing agencies. For example, National Rural Health Mission operates through District and Village Health Committees, Sarva Siksha Abhiyan through Community Based Organisations, and several other such schemes like mid day meal scheme where the local bodies are not involved.
  • Financial burden on the States’ resources as these Central Sponsored Schemes have financial components to be contributed by the States.
  • The local priorities are completely ignored. For example, the schemes like Sarva Siksha Abhiyan do not make any sense for an advanced state like Kerala as its literacy, enrollment and retention rates are much greater than the targets of the scheme.
  • Effectiveness and performance estimation of these schemes can not be easily done at the Centre level.
  • No convergence between the schemes launched by the States and the Local bodies.

In this regard, the NITI Aayog had constituted a sub-committee of Chief Ministers to look into the issue of what Central Sponsored Schemes can be withdrawn.

Also the Fourteenth Finance Commission had recommended that the number of Central Sponsored Schemes must be limited and be adequately flexible so as to meet the State specific needs. It also recommended that the funds for these schemes must only flow through the States and to the Local bodies avoiding direct devolution to the implementing agencies.

The Union budget for the year 2015-16 also witnessed de-linking of Central funding for 8 CSS like National Mission on Food Processing, Backward Regions Development Fund, National e-Governance Plan etc. On the other hand it had changed the Union-State contribution formula for 24 CSS like ICDS, National Health Mission etc., placing more onus on the States. This has been made due to the greater allocation of unconditional transfers to the States based on the recommendations of the Fourteenth Finance Commission.

Road ahead

There is little doubt about the desirability of Cooperative Federalism. But that alone doesn’t guarantee greater socio-economic development. It places greater onus on the States to deliver on it. For example, this year in the Union budget, the allocations in the Agriculture sector had gone down significantly because of greater devolution of unconditional funds to the States. The Centre has conceded the long standing demand of the States towards Cooperative Federalism and now it up to the States to walk the talk and turn this into tangible results.

Opinion – Should the Juveniles be trialed under adult laws in heinous crimes?

An amendment to the Juvenile Justice Act (JJA) has been introduced, where the juveniles in the age range of 16-18 years shall be treated as adults in prosecuting them for heinous crimes. In the cases of Delhi gang rape and Shakti Mills gang rape, juveniles in the age group of 16-18 years were involved in committing the crime and this became the reason why such an amendment to the JJA is being mooted. Before venturing into the merits (or de-merits) of such an amendment, let us take a closer look at the purpose of JJA itself.

The JJA deals with the children (below 18 years of age) in conflict with the law. Its agenda is not to treat such children as adults and instead provide them assistance to integrate them back into the society and protect them from being tagged as “life long criminals”.  This is just since their maturity levels are not high, which is why this treatment is also endorsed by UNICEF and other such international conventions.

The proposed amendment to the JJA, which tries to create a new category of 16-18 years old who shall be treated as adults in cases of heinous crimes, is however a back step. The public outrage in the Delhi gang rape and Shakti Mills rape cases against the juveniles who committed the rape is understandable. But serious changes to the laws cannot be made on such cases alone. It needs a scientific study of the cases where the juveniles have committed such heinous crimes. Some time ago, there was an interesting survey done by “The Hindu” about juveniles involved in cases of rape, based on the data of National Crime Records Bureau. It has been found that the proportion of juveniles committing such crimes is minuscule (about 1.2%). And even in such a small portion of the cases, most of them deal with the cases of juvenile elopements, where the parents of an under-18 girl file the cases of rape and abduction against an under 18 boy, whom the girl eloped with. And in the remaining portion where the juveniles did commit the heinous crime (like Delhi gang rape case and Shakti Mills gang rape case), the “bad” influence of the adult peers who make them party to these crimes can not be ruled out, although their actions can never be justified.

It is being said that several developed countries like USA and UK already treat their juveniles as adults in cases of heinous crimes. But it will be unfair to compare India’s case with that of the west, because the socio-economic opportunities that Indian children get are much less compared to that of the west. As a result we can not expect the children of India to have the same maturity and educational levels as those of the west. In that sense, our society should be blamed to some extent for not being able to foment strong ethical and moral values in our children. Also, there is no scientific evidence that such treatment did bring down the crime rates in the west.

Of course, under no grounds can the rape committed by anyone, even a juvenile, be justified and pardoned. But the question really is should the juveniles be treated as adults and be subjected to life imprisonment or capital punishment for a crime that they made with a premature mind. On the other hand they must also not be released after a few counselling sessions because they might pose a further threat to the society, as if not properly counselled they may end up committing the same crime again. So what we need is a middle ground. They must be subjected to some form of education and counselling program, with adequate stress on vocational training so that they are released back into the society only as reformed persons. It may be more appropriate to consider constituting a committee of sociologists, criminal psychologists and legal experts to make proper recommendations on dealing with juveniles committing heinous crimes. The costs involved in this exercise are completely justified as it is the duty of the society and the state to take adequate care of its children.

Opinion – Time to revisit the section 295A of Indian Penal Code

Section 295A of Indian Penal Code (IPC) falls under the “reasonable restrictions” of Article 19, that deals with the freedom of expression. It says that publishing content with “deliberate and malicious intentions” of hurting the religious feelings of a community is a punishable offence. This section has been in news in various cases, such as:

  1. Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History, faced severe opposition from certain sections and charges were booked under Section 295A. Under these pressures the Penguin publishers withdrew the book from the market and it opined that the Section 295A has become a serious impediment to the freedom of press in India.
  2. A similar story of Perumal Murugan’s Madhorubhagan unwrapped in the state of Tamil Nadu which spoke about a controversial religious ceremony called “Niyoga”. The case booked under the same section is now pending in the Supreme Court.
  3. Shirin Dalvi, an editor in a Urdu daily Avadhnama based out of Mumbai had reproduced the infamous Charlie Hebdo’s cartoon on the Prophet (Peace be upon him).

What is common to such cases are the public protests, alleged harassment and calls of threats on the authors/editors by certain communities. It signifies the levels of intolerance in the society.

Freedom of expression/media can not be made absolute. At least not to the extent where it hurts the religious sentiments deliberately and poses more of a threat to the society than good (as envisioned in “reasonable restrictions” clause of Article 19). This is particularly not acceptable in India, which has had a long history with communalism that is easily provoked by such actions. Section 295A thus holds some amount of legitimacy to it.

On the other hand, freedom of expression is necessary for scholars to take up scientific analysis of various issues. For example, in case of history(or sociology) the scholars must be allowed to analyse historical(or sociological) aspects from various vantage points, sometimes against the conventional views. And in case of India, where one can find a closer correlation between history(or society) and religion such analysis would inadvertently result in venturing into the domain of religion or religious practices. Though the intent of the scholars here is not “deliberate and malicious”, they often find themselves to be booked under the Section 295A and facing the wrath of certain communities. Although the Indian Judiciary had always protected the authors in such instances, they would have to withstand the public humiliation and the face the trial process which could sometimes take several years. This is brewing an environment that is discouraging the scholars to take up such studies, which is an ultimate loss to our own country.

So what we need is a revisit at this colonial law to narrow down the purview of Section 295A so that it doesn’t threaten the freedom of expression/media. More clarity on what comes under “deliberate and malicious intentions” needs to be poured in by the Legislature.

The intolerance in the society to such different views is a subject for another discussion.