The 2016 winter session of parliament, which began on 16 November, was expected to be a stormy one. The previous week, the government had announced its decision to demonetise notes of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000. Beginning on the first day, for two weeks, members of opposition parties repeatedly obstructed proceedings of the Lok Sabha with their criticism of the demonetisation. In the midst of the pandemonium, a side act was playing out in the lower house: in a span of two days, the government introduced and passed a bill that amended the Income Tax Act of 1961 and the Finance Act of 2016. On 28 November, the Taxation Laws (Second Amendment) Bill, 2016, was listed for introduction in a supplementary list to the original list of business in the Lok Sabha for that day. The following day, the bill was taken up amid sloganeering and passed without a debate.
When the speaker, Sumitra Mahajan, took up the bill in parliament, several leaders voiced criticism of the manner in which it was introduced. Sundip Bandhyopadhyay, from the Trinamool Congress (TMC), said to the house, “We are not prepared yesterday to study it either. It was a very hasty decision,” Bhartruhari Mahtab, from the Biju Janta Dal, said that the bill would have serious repercussions on the taxation policy of the country. Mahtab also criticised the introduction of the bill. He said, “In all urgency, it was brought yesterday. It was not listed. Today it is listed for consideration and passing.” He then said that the deliberations in Lok Sabha would improve the structure of the bill. Sugata Roy of the TMC added, “Madam, this should not happen. The future of the nation is at stake. This government’s effort of no discussion on the bill should not be allowed. We should have a proper discussion.” These procedural concerns of members went unaddressed by the speaker.
Following that, NK Premachandran, of the Revolutionary Socialist Party, raised a point of order—a query regarding whether proper parliamentary procedure was followed—concerning the time granted to move amendments. Mahajan responded by saying that these would be addressed after the bill had been formally introduced and was under consideration by the house. When the bill was being considered however, she rejected all points of order, citing the “urgency involved.” “We have to dispose of the bill today itself,” she said.
The taxation laws amendment bill introduces a scheme for self-declaration of undisclosed income, called the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana (PMGKY). It imposes a tax of 30 percent and a penalty of 10 percent on the undisclosed income, along with a cess of 33 percent on tax. It requires a deposit of 25 percent of the undisclosed income into the PMGKY fund—without earning any interest—and prohibits its withdrawal for four years. If the tax authorities discover unexplained income that has not been declared, the bill imposes a 60 percent tax on this income, along with a surcharge on the tax of 25 percent, and penalty of 10 percent. The thrust of the bill was to supplement the demonetisation move of the government by taxing unaccounted incomes at higher rates.
A distressing outcome of the political stalemate and the disruption of parliamentary functioning in the winter session was the passage of this bill without any discussion and scrutiny by the Lok Sabha. Every piece of legislation needs to be thoroughly scrutinised by parliament. This becomes even more important in case of legislation like the taxation laws amendment bill, for two reasons. For one, the bill undertakes important fiscal measures such as imposing taxes and penalties. Secondly, the bill is only subjected to discussion in the lower house—a financial legislation does not go through added debate and scrutiny in the Rajya Sabha. The manner in which the bill was passed is a trend in the Indian parliament, and is reflective of its institutional failure.