The government has merged several powerful administrative tribunals and assumed powers to appoint and remove their chiefs, triggering fears the unprecedented move will undermine the authority and independence of these quasi-judicial institutions.
The Finance Bill 2017, ratified by the Lok Sabha on Wednesday, also made several structural changes, including making Aadhaar numbers mandatory for filing tax returns, allowing companies to make bigger, anonymous political donations and capping single cash transaction at Rs 200,000.
But the most sweeping changes related to eight autonomous tribunals which were merged with other tribunals, and which also gave the government the power to appoint and remove the members in another 17 such bodies. This which could pose a conflict of interest in cases where the government is a litigant, critics said.
In some cases, the mergers appeared incongruous. For example, the Airport Economic Regulatory Authority Appellate Tribunal was merged into the Telecom Dispute Settlements and Appellate Tribunal. The bill also laid down severance terms for the chairpersons, vice-chairpersons and members of the merged tribunals: Up to three months’ pay and allowances, and it said officers will revert to their parent cadre, ministry or department.
The government defended its decision, saying reducing the number of tribunals will speed up dispute resolution and curb wasteful expenditure.
“The government won’t have any extra powers than what it has now in the functioning of these tribunals,” a senior central minister told HT.
But opposition parties and constitutional experts said such a move chips away at the independence of these institutions, and reflects the government’s desire to ride roughshod over opponents and control even autonomous bodies.
“The rationalisation of tribunals is important at times, but this will lead to dilution of expertise and confusion. And through this move it will enable the government to put their own henchmen in tribunals,” said Congress leader Veerappa Moily.
Critics also questioned the government’s motive in bringing in the changes through a money bill, which allows it to bypass the Rajya Sabha where it lacks a majority.
The government move also appeared to contravene a 2014 Supreme Court order that held appointments to appellate tribunals must be free of executive interference. So far such hiring and firings were determined by laws governing these respective tribunals.
“A serious argument could be made that Parliament has given up its power to the executive regarding the functioning of tribunals,” said advocate Alok Prasanna Kumar, who had prepared a concept note on tribunals for the law ministry in 2015.
Some experts also shot down arguments that rationalising tribunals would lead to efficiency.
“There is no infrastructure and merging them will add to their backlog, overlap and confusion,” Mohan Parasran, former attorney general, told Hindustan Times.
“Increasing control of the Centre over tribunals will be contrary to the spirit and principles laid down by the Supreme Court to ensure fairness and jurisprudence.”
The Finance Bill also allowed companies to give political parties more money anonymously.
So far, a company could contribute up to 7.5 % of a three-year average of its net profits, and had to disclose the name of the recipient party.
Now, that cap is gone, as also the need for companies to disclose the names of the beneficiaries.
(Inputs from Suchetana Ray)