Editorials - 26-03-2021

It violates the basic tenets of India’s democracy by keeping the knowledge of the ‘right to know’ from citizens and voters

The Supreme Court, after a brief hearing on March 24, reserved orders on the question of whether or not to stay the electoral bond scheme, ahead of the upcoming State elections. For the last three years, electoral bonds have been the dominant method of political party funding in India. In their design and operation, they allow for limitless and anonymous corporate donations to political parties. For this reason, they are deeply destructive of democracy, and violate core principles of the Indian Constitution.

A blow against democracy

If democracy means anything, it must mean this: when citizens cast their votes for the people who will represent them in Parliament, they have the right to do so on the basis of full and complete information. And there is no piece of information more important than the knowledge of who funds political parties. Across democratic societies, and through time, it has been proven beyond doubt that money is the most effective way of buying policy, of engaging in regulatory capture, and of skewing the playing field in one’s own favour. This is enabled to a far greater degree when citizens are in the dark about the source of money: it is then impossible to ever know — or assess — whether a government policy is nothing more than aquid pro quoto benefit its funders. The Indian Supreme Court has long held — and rightly so — that the “right to know”, especially in the context of elections, is an integral part of the right to freedom of expression under the Indian Constitution. By keeping this knowledge from citizens and voters, the electoral bonds scheme violates fundamental tenets of our democracy.

It is equally important that if a democracy is to thrive, the role of money in influencing politics ought to be limited. In many advanced countries, for example, elections are funded publicly, and principles of parity ensure that there is not too great a resource gap between the ruling party and the opposition. The purpose of this is to guarantee a somewhat level playing field, so that elections are a battle of ideas, and not vastly unequal contests where one side’s superior resources enable it to overwhelm the other. For this reason, in most countries where elections are not publicly funded, there are caps or limits on financial contributions to political parties.

The electoral bonds scheme, however, removes all pre-existing limits on political donations, and effectively allows well-resourced corporations to buy politicians by paying immense sums of money. This defeats the entire purpose of democracy, which as B.R. Ambedkar memorably pointed out, was not just to guarantee one person, one vote, but one vote one value.

However, not only do electoral bonds violate basic democratic principles by allowing limitless and anonymous donations to political parties, they do so asymmetrically. Since the donations are routed through the State Bank of India, it is possible for the government to find out who is donating to which party, but not for the political opposition to know. This, in turn, means that every donor is aware that the central government can trace their donations back to them. Given India’s long-standing misuse of investigative agencies by whichever government occupies power at the Centre, this becomes a very effective way to squeeze donations to rival political parties, while filling the coffers of the incumbent ruling party. Statistics bear this out: while we do not know who has donated to whom, we do know that a vast majority of the immensely vast sums donated through multiple electoral cycles over the last three years, have gone to the ruling party, i.e. the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Gaps in government’s defence

The government has attempted to justify the electoral bonds scheme by arguing that its purpose is to prevent the flow of black money into elections. The journalist Nitin Sethi has already debunked this rationale in a detailed 10-part investigative report, which has also highlighted reservations within the government as well as by the Election Commission of India to the electoral bonds scheme. That apart, this justification falls apart under the most basic scrutiny: it is entirely unclear what preventing black money has to do with donor anonymity, making donations limitless, and leaving citizens in the dark. Indeed, as the electoral bonds scheme allows even foreign donations to political parties (which can often be made through shell companies) the prospects of institutional corruption (including by foreign sources) increases with the electoral bonds scheme, instead of decreasing.

It is important to be clear that the objections to the electoral bonds scheme, highlighted above, are not objections rooted in political morality, or in public policy. They are constitutional objections. The right to know has long been enshrined as a part of the right to freedom of expression; furthermore, uncapping political donations and introducing a structural bias into the form of the donations violate both the guarantee of equality before law, as well as being manifestly arbitrary.

The judiciary needs to act

This brings us to the all-important role of the courts. One of the most critical functions of an independent judiciary in a functioning democracy is to referee the fundamentals of the democratic process. Governments derive their legitimacy from elections, and it is elections that grant governments the mandate to pursue their policy goals, without undue interference from courts. However, for just that reason, it is of vital importance that the process that leads up to the formation of the government be policed with particular vigilance, as any taint at that stage will taint all that follows. In other words, the electoral legitimacy of the government is questionable if the electoral process has become questionable. And since the government itself cannot — in good faith — regulate the process that it itself is subject to every five years, the courts remain the only independent body that can adequately umpire and enforce the ground rules of democracy.

It is for this reason that courts must be particularly sensitive to and cognisant of laws and rules that seek to skew the democratic process and the level playing field, and that seek to entrench one-party rule over multi-party democracy. There is little doubt that in intent and in effect, the electoral bonds scheme is guilty of both. Thus, it deserves to be struck down by the courts as unconstitutional.

In this regard, the conduct of the Supreme Court so far has been disappointing. The petition challenging the constitutional validity of the electoral bonds scheme was filed in 2018. The case, which is absolutely vital to the future health of Indian democracy, has been left unheard for three years. The Supreme Court’s inaction in this case is not neutral: it directly benefits the ruling party which as we have seen, has received a vast bulk of electoral bond funding through the multiple State and one general election since 2018, and creates a continuing distortion of democracy. It is a matter of some optimism that a start was finally made when the Court heard the application for stay before this round of elections. One can only hope that the Court will stay the scheme so that it does not further distort the coming round of elections, and then proceed to hear and decide the full case, in short order.

Gautam Bhatia is a Delhi-based lawyer

Small but important steps can put an end to the long-standing issues in a relationship that is gradually coming of age

The friendship between India and Bangladesh is historic, evolving over the last 50 years. India’s political, diplomatic, military and humanitarian support during Bangladesh’s Liberation War played an important role towards Bangladesh’s independence. Nearly 3,900 Indian soldiers gave up their lives and an estimated 10 million Bangladeshi refugees took shelter in India.

Now it is about cooperation

Post-Independence, the India-Bangladesh relationship has oscillated as Bangladesh passed through different regimes. The relationship remained cordial until the assassination of Bangladesh’s founding President Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in August 15, 1975, followed by a period of military rule and the rise of General Ziaur Rahman who became President and also assassinated in 1981. It thawed again between 1982-1991 when a military-led government by General H.M. Ershad ruled the country. Since Bangladesh’s return to parliamentary democracy in 1991, relations have gone through highs and lows. However, in the last decade, India-Bangladesh relations have warmed up, entering a new era of cooperation, and moving beyond historical and cultural ties to become more assimilated in the areas of trade, connectivity, energy, and defence.

Bangladesh and India have achieved the rare feat of solving their border issues peacefully by ratifying the historic Land Boundary Agreement in 2015, where enclaves were swapped allowing inhabitants to choose their country of residence and become citizens of either India or Bangladesh. The Bangladesh government led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has uprooted anti-India insurgency elements from its borders, making the India-Bangladesh border one of the region’s most peaceful, and allowing India to make a massive redeployment of resources to its more contentious borders elsewhere.

Bangladesh today is India’s biggest trading partner in South Asia with exports to Bangladesh in FY 2018-19 at $9.21 billion and imports at $1.04 billion. India has offered duty free access to multiple Bangladeshi products. Trade could be more balanced if non-tariff barriers from the Indian side could be removed. On the development front, cooperation has deepened, with India extending three lines of credit to Bangladesh in recent years amounting to $8 billion for the construction of roads, railways, bridges, and ports. However, in eight years until 2019, only 51% of the first $800 million line of credit has been utilised whilst barely any amount from the next two lines of credit worth $6.5 billion has been mobilised. This has been mostly due to red-tapism from India’s end, and slow project implementation on Bangladesh’s end.

Bangladeshis make up a large portion of tourists in India, outnumbering all tourists arriving from western Europe in 2017, with one in every five tourists being a Bangladeshi. Bangladesh accounts for more than 35% of India’s international medical patients and contributes more than 50% of India’s revenue from medical tourism.

The connectivity boost

Connectivity between the two countries has greatly improved. A direct bus service between Kolkata and Agartala runs a route distance of 500 km, as compared to the 1,650 km if it ran through the Chicken’s Neck to remain within India. There are three passenger and freight railway services running between the two countries, with two more routes on their way to be restored. Recently, a 1.9 kilometre long bridge, the Maitri Setu, was inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, connecting Sabroom in India with Ramgarh in Bangladesh.

Bangladesh allows the shipment of goods from its Mongla and Chattogram (Chittagong) seaports carried by road, rail, and water ways to Agartala (Tripura) via Akhura; Dawki (Meghalaya) via Tamabil; Sutarkandi (Assam) via Sheola, and Srimantpur (Tripura) via Bibirbazar. This allows landlocked Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura to access open water routes through the Chattogram and Mongla ports (https://bit.ly/3vXySpB).

Bones of contention

Despite the remarkable progress, the unresolved Teesta water sharing issue looms large. Border killings are yet to stop. The year 2020 saw the highest number of border shootings by the Border Security Force. The shots are fired at civilians, usually cattle traders, who are usually unarmed, trying to illegally cross the border. India not only has failed to stop the border killings but at times has even justified them. The statement by India’s External Affairs Minister, S. Jaishankar, during his recent visit to Dhaka, that “our shared objective should be a no crime-no death border...”, raises questions as to why killings, and not due legal proceedings, are being followed in tackling border crimes.

The Modi government’s proposal to implement the National Register of Citizens across the whole of India reflects poorly on India-Bangladesh relations. It is not comprehensible why people of all religions and ethnicities barring Muslims will be excluded from the Bill. It remains to be seen how India addresses the deportation of illegal Muslim immigrants, some of whom claim to have come from Bangladesh.

Sri Lanka, Nepal and the Maldives, once considered traditional Indian allies, are increasingly tilting towards China due to the Asian giant’s massive trade, infrastructural and defence investments in these countries. In spite of its ‘Neighbourhood First Policy’, India has been losing its influence in the region to China. Bhutan also does not abide by Indian influence as evinced by its withdrawal from the BBIN (Bhutan-Bangladesh-India-Nepal) motor vehicles agreement. China, in lieu of its cheque-book diplomacy, is well-entrenched in South Asia, including Bangladesh, with which it enjoys significant economic and defence relations.

Keeping the momentum going

India-Bangladesh relations have been gaining positive momentum over the last decade. As Bangladesh celebrates its 50 years of independence (March 26, 1971), India continues to be one of its most important neighbours and strategic partners. As the larger country, the onus is on India to be generous enough to let the water flow and ensure that people are not killed on the border for cattle even if it is illegal when there are appropriate means for justice. These small but important steps can remove long-standing snags in a relationship which otherwise is gradually coming of age in 50 years. To make the recent gains irreversible, both countries need to continue working on the three Cs — cooperation, collaboration, and consolidation.

Syed Munir Khasru is Chairman of the international think tank, The Institute for Policy, Advocacy, and Governance (IPAG) with presence in Dhaka, Delhi, Melbourne, Vienna, and Dubai

India has the wherewithal to sharply accelerate daily vaccination rate

Just three weeks after it rolled out the second phase of the mass vaccination programme for people above 60 years and those above 45 years with comorbidities, India has now undertaken course correction — to vaccinate anyone above 45 years immaterial of comorbidity status from April 1. By following the U.K. model of vaccination based on age bands rather than on comorbidities, millions would become eligible to receive the vaccine and be fully protected. Indeed, people with comorbidities are at greater risk of becoming critically ill and even dying. However, the list of comorbidities that made a person eligible for a vaccine was not only highly restrictive but also focused on multiple comorbidities, and that too of severe nature. Also, the need for a medical certificate meant that vaccinating as many people as quickly as possible was unachievable. Since a vast majority, particularly the poor and those in rural areas, are ignorant of their underlying disease, the decision, though belated, to make comorbidities redundant for a vaccine is commendable. As vaccines are a tool to promote health equity, all attempts should be made to remove any artificial barriers, more so when several States are witnessing a surge in cases.

While hesitancy towards the two available vaccines was partly responsible for the low uptake initially, there is now increasing willingness to get vaccinated. While 0.8 million doses administered on February 25 was the highest before the second phase began, the numbers have been rising steadily thereafter; increasing the gap between two Covishield doses partly addresses vaccine shortage. Yet, the seven-day rolling average crossed two million doses per day only in the last couple of days; only about 50.23 million doses have been administered as on March 24, or less than four doses per 100 people. The vaccination programme has also been witnessing lukewarm participation by private medical facilities. The reasons for this, besides the slow pace of expansion in some States, need to be fixed. Though the COVID-19 vaccination, which targets adults, is vastly different from the universal immunisation programme, India has the wherewithal to accelerate the daily vaccination rate. What is missing is the political will to achieve that, reflected in absent targets and awareness building exercises, including vaccine safety, vaccine sites and permissibility of walk-ins. Also, unlike the immunisation programme, overreliance on the CoWIN platform has made vaccination into a largely passive, facility-based exercise rather than a public-health initiative. Lack of microplanning and outreach activities are further impacting uptake. Clearly, there is a case for reaching out to people to quickly increase vaccine uptake.

Modified tax provision on PF income discriminates against non-govt. employees

Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman has steered through Parliament the Finance Bill of 2021, which includes 127 amendments. Among the major changes is a tweak in the proposal to tax income on PF contributions over Rs. 2.5 lakh a year. Responding to MPs’ concerns on the tax, she said that nearly 93% PF account holders will be covered by the Rs. 2.5 lakh per year limit, while a mere 1% were abusing the system. Yet, she introduced an amendment doubling the threshold for annual PF contributions to Rs. 5 lakh, only for employees whose employers do not remit any contribution to their retirement fund account. For the crores of Employees’ PF account holders in the private sector, this Rs. 5 lakh threshold is a non-starter as an employer-employee relationship is an implicit requirement to open an EPF account. While employees may voluntarily enhance contributions beyond the statutory wage limit of Rs. 15,000 a month and employers are not bound to match enhanced contributions, a ‘zero employer contribution’ scenario is not possible for EPF members. This suggests that only some senior government staff who joined service before 2004 and are not part of the NPS will benefit from this concession, as they contribute to the GPF account and get a defined benefit pension separately.

In a country with a large informal workforce and sparse social security systems, reasonable savings for retirement should not be penalised. But to give tax relief for such savings only to government employees smacks of bureaucratic preservation of self-interests deriding an equitable approach to taxation. The least the government could have done was to offer the same cap of Rs. 5 lakh to EPF members, by including their employer contributions during the year. As things stand now, annual investments into the PPF that anyone can open, are capped at Rs. 1.5 lakh. Similarly, employee PF contributions beyond Rs. 1.5 lakh are not tax-deductible under Section 80C of the I-T Act, but income on such contributions beyond Rs. 2.5 lakh will be taxable and employer contributions into the EPF, NPS or any superannuation pension fund are capped at Rs. 7.5 lakh. And the income on GPF contributions up to Rs. 5 lakh would be tax-free. This dissonance suggests an unconscionable disconnect between policy makers and the aspirations of the working class to save for their sunset years. To top this off, the new Wages Code will compel employers to pay higher EPF contributions by linking them to at least half of their total pay on a cost to company basis, rather than 24% of basic pay presently. This will virtually force many EPF members into contributing over Rs. 2.5 lakh a year. This either reflects a lack of system-wide thinking, with two arms of the government working at cross purposes, or an ingenious ploy to stir up tax collections. With doubts on the implementation of this new tax yet to be addressed, the government must consider putting it on hold and think through its implications.