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                     WE NEED LAWS : BUT ON OUR TERMS!
Opinion

WE NEED LAWS : BUT ON OUR TERMS!

Prof. T K Thomas

Welcome to incredible India! One is flagging two recent developments which show how ministers themselves in Uttar Pradesh, for almost four decades, were beneficiaries of an Act giving them tax benefits. The second is how we as citizens are not great respecters of the laws enacted by our Parliament and state legislatures when they pinch our pockets!

It is indeed praiseworthy that the Yogi Adityanath government in Uttar Pradesh last Friday[13th September] had decided to do away with what may be called an Act which, to say the least, was against the spirit of democracy and equity. It was the V P Singh government in Uttar Pradesh that gave state ministers a pecuniary bonanza in the form of the Uttar Pradesh Ministers’ Salaries, allowances and Miscellaneous Allowances Act, 1981. According to this Act the Chief Minister and his Council of Ministers did not have to pay income tax from their own pockets. Instead, this Act provided that the tax from their salaries went to the Income tax Department straight from the state exchequer. What political munificence!

The act has clear directions:- “The salary referred to in sub sections [1] and [2] shall be exclusive of the tax payable in respect of such salary [including perquisites ]under any law relating to income tax for the time being in force, and such tax shall be borne by the state.” One wonders how a state government could pass such a legislation on payment of income tax overriding the central Income tax act!

This came into public notice last week when one of the Yogi ministers, Shrikant Sharma said about an “ Act existing from 1981”. A report says that this law has helped over 19 Chief Ministers cutting across party lines who include the present incumbent Yogi Adityanath, his predecessors Akhilesh Yadav, Mulayam Sigh Yadav, Rajnath Singh, Mayavati, Kalyan Singh, Vir Bahadur Singh and Narayan Dutt Tiwari. There have also been about a thousand ministers who have been the beneficiaries of this Act.

One of the purported reasons for the 1981 Act was that the legislators at that time were “poor people”, many of them from marginalized communities who were unable to pay their personal income tax! It may be pointed out that when this bill was enacted in 1981 the monthly salary of a minister in the Uttar Pradesh Government was a paltry one thousand rupees. That is not the story today. Well, whether the legislators continue to be ‘poor’ to scrap this provision is worth discussing! The huge assets declared to the Central Election Commission and in public domain of at least two chief ministers are too well known to be repeated here.

Whatever prompted the V P Singh government for this enactment, what is surprising is that there appears to have been no questions raised on this system and no other state also emulated this from 1981 till date. The media and regulatory bodies including state and central auditing agencies never seem to have bothered about the propriety of such an Act. It is said that he only legislation that gets unanimously passed in our legislatures is when there are periodic hikes in salary and perquisites of elected representatives. The question is how is it that even financial experts or Chartered Accountants who would have been members of the Uttar Pradesh Assembly from 1981 till date never pointed out this, what one may call, a serious anomaly.

Reports during the last one week point at rather strange logic by legislators. Many of them say they never even knew that their personal income tax accruing from the salaries, allowances and perquisites as elected representatives and ministers were being paid by the state government exchequer!

As one hard a short stint with the income tax department before joining broadcasting one has another take on the personal income tax of ministers being paid by the state government. Such payments by the employer [in this case the Uttar Pradesh State government] like other perquisites is considered to be the ministers’ own gross income which is taxable . One wonders whether such calculations are reflected in their grosser, if at all they have filed their personal income tax returns. That could be a pretty sum to be paid by individual ministers, especially for those who served for long tenures!

Now that this matter has come in the public domain, one complements the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister and the government for their willingness to correct a past impropriety. This would definitely enhance the credibility of the government and it is hoped that this patently improper Act will be scrapped. Lawmakers have a duty to be transparent in whatever they do. The corrective action in this case is yet to be finalized by the Uttar Pradesh state government.

The second instance is the resistance by average citizens and many state governments to accept and implement the hike in fines for traffic law violations.

Ever since the passing in Parliament in July of the Motor Vehicles [Amendment] Bill, the Union Road Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari has been under attack from political foes and friends alike. The Bill which was debated in the Parliament should have given both the ruling and opposition MPs enough opportunities to put forward their views to question the practicality of the hiked fines. And of course the fines appear to be exorbitant and beyond the capacity of an average road user. For example, the hike in traffic penalties is as much as five times or more - the penalty for driving without a license has been raised from Rs. 500 to Rs. 5000; drunken driving from 2000 to 10,000; driving without a seat belt from 100 to 1000; driving without helmet from 100 to 1,000 and so on. These hikes definitely appear to be very heavy.

It is natural on the part of opposition parties and state governments run by them to oppose such moves by a central ministry. For example, the Chief Minister of West Bengal Mamata Banerjee has called the hike too harsh and announced that this central Act “would not apply” in her state! May be the motor vehicle regulations come under the concurrent list, but such open defiance for a central legislation is not exactly ideal for a federal democracy. The Kerala government’s immediate reaction was that it would not impose heavy fines under the Motor Vehicles [Amendment] Act 2019 during the Onam Festival! People in the state during this month’s festival drank alcohol worth Rs. 500 crore and the state boasts of the highest per capita consumption of alcohol. There of course would h\ave been a concomitant increase in road accidents due to drunk driving! According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration of the US, almost 30% of those killed in road accidents were due to drunken driving.

A well meaning Nitin Gadkari recently said that 1,50,000 people get killed annually on the roads and 65% of them are in the age group of 18-35. He seems to have taken his intentions really sincerely and was obviously under his wits end when he asked the states to take up the responsibility for diluting road fines. He also added that “people need to have a fear of law.” That exactly is the problem in India; we do not want penalties for violation of road rules etc. if the fines are high. We are a highly legislated nation but most of us have scant respect for the laws of the land. Knowing full well that we as responsible citizens need to follow the laws, don’t we tend to adopt short cuts like bribing the law enforcers? One remembers, how unauthorized sand mining has been against the law but people would do it in the sly or after greasing the palm of those officials who were supposed to prevent illegal mining of sands from our rivers. Such illegal and unauthorized mining have ensured that we have killed a large number of our rivers.

It is indeed embarrassing for the ruling party at the center when BJP ruled state governments like Gujarat have openly defied the central legislation and suo moto brought in their own decreased fines for violation of traffic rules. The state has announced that it will reduce the fines by 90%. Or how do you like the Deputy Chief Minister of BJP ruled Karnataka blames ‘’ Good roads for accidents”. Govind Karjol commented that ,”A majority of accidents occur on highways.[ the good roads] I don’t support levying high fines. We will make a decision on the revision of the fines during cabinet meetings.” Yes minister, you are right! we should avoid constructing good roads to prevent fatal road accidents!

Road transport minister Nitin Gadkari has been almost crusading against the unruly traffic scenes across the country and his arguments for deterrence are based on solid facts and statistics as pointed out above. He now seems to be exasperated. Don’t we, the citizens of this country have a right to get injured and die on our dangerous roads ?