Tag Archives: political parties

Sex Work and the Law: A Case for Nuanced Debate

23 Dec

The debate over legalization vs decriminalization of prostitution is in the public domain with reports that the National Commission for Women has recommended legalization to the Supreme Court appointed panel for rehabilitation of sex workers. The panel, formed in 2011 when the Supreme Court suo motu converted a criminal appeal relating to a murder of a sex worker into a PIL, is in the process of consulting various stakeholders.

The mandate of this panel was to recommend measures for the rehabilitation of sex workers who wished to leave sex work, and conducive conditions for sex workers who wish to continue working in the profession.

Magnitude of the issue

Estimates of the number of women engaged in prostitution have increased over the years. In 1997, a report of the National Commission of Women put it at 2 million, in 2004, a study sponsored by the Ministry of Women and Child Development estimated it to be 3 million of which 36% were children and a 2013 report on sex trafficking by Dasra, a philanthropic foundation estimated that about 20 million women were engaged in the profession. The 2013 report showed that 80% of these women are victims of sex trafficking. Most disturbingly, out of the estimated 16 million women who are trafficked, 6 million are children under 18 years of age. There is however no official estimates available since 2004 of the prevalence of prostitution.

According to the 2013 report, the prevalence of prostitution is highest in states such as Arunachal Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka, Goa, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Nagaland, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal as well Union Territories like Chandigarh and Daman and Diu.

Multiple factors lead to women becoming prostitutes, the most common of which are illiteracy, lack of vocational skills, economic distress, migration, desertion by spouse, ill-treatment by parents and family tradition. Most work in miserable conditions leading to different types of diseases, depression and hopelessness. They are also faced with daily violence, constant police harassment and societal ostracisation. Given the informal economy in which they work, they also find it difficult to open bank accounts, get insurance or identification cards.

The threat of HIV/AIDS also looms large –  reports say prevalence of HIV/AIDS among this category ranged between 2% and 38% in India (globally it is about 12%). However, due to their ambiguous legal status, they are unable to get access to basic services including healthcare, education and bank accounts.

Not prohibited, but is it permitted?

According to the Immoral Trafficking Prevention Act, 1956 (ITP Act), “prostitution” is defined as the sexual exploitation of persons for commercial purposes. While it does not prohibit sex work per se, it imposes penalty for keeping a brothel, soliciting, pimping and plying the trade near a public place such as places of worship, schools and hospitals.

In 2006, India moved towards decriminalization of prostitution when it attempted to amend the ITP Act by deleting the provision that penalized soliciting and adding a provision that penalized clients of sex workers who were trafficked victims. However the Bill lapsed with the dissolution of the 14th Lok Sabha. These provisions were not well thought through given that it did not clarify the confusion about the profession’s basic legal status since provisions such as penalizing clients, prostitution in brothels and public places made it difficult for prostitutes to practice their trade legitimately.

What works?

In most of Asia, Africa and parts of the US, prostitution is illegal. Some states in Australia and New Zealand have decriminalized prostitution (no penalty for prostitutes) while Sweden, Norway, Iceland and Nepal penalize the client on the ground that prostitution is an aspect of male violence towards women. Prostitution is legal in most countries in Latin America and Europe and in some parts of the US.

The evidence however is not clear either ways. Some studies do show a correlation between legitimizing sex work and a drop in violence targeting sex workers while others show that it has resulted in increase in human trafficking.

Decriminalising – the way forward

As we re-open the debate about prostitution, Legalization in India may not improve matters given India’s lax law enforcement mechanism as well as cultural milieu. The safest option at this point may be decriminalizing the trade so that sex work per se is not legalised but sex workers are not harassed and exploited by the police, brothel owners and pimps (middlemen).   It would also reduce barriers to essential health services, education, bank accounts, insurance, voter identity cards. The government needs to play a crucial role by providing credible rehabilitation options if any of them want to opt out.

The recently enacted Criminal Laws (Amendment) Act, 2013 includes provision to penalize trafficking for any purpose. However, the government needs to strengthen its efforts to combat trafficking by dedicating resources, strengthening capacity of existing institutions and encouraging other stakeholders to leverage their own resources and expertise to address this serious problem. Considering the cross-regional and interdisciplinary nature of trafficking, there is a need to build and provide sustainable support to networks that bring together various stakeholders linking source and destination areas, frame common objectives and ensure accountability and effective delivery on the ground. 

The piece was first published on the Bharti Institute of Public Policy, ISB’s blog.

Treasure Hunting

22 Nov

I have a recent piece in the Indian Express on the misplaced prioritisation on bringing back black money. The op-ed can be found here.  The piece is reproduced below.

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Suppose you are the government of a country badly in need of gold, but with only Rs 100 with which to get some.

You have two options on how to spend the money you have at your disposal for this purpose: Option one, try and tap the vast and readily available gold deposits in your country or option two, send your generals out to wage war against a neighbouring country rumoured to have large quantities of gold in circulation already. The first option would require the government to build durable capacity to extract the gold. It would require skill-building and long-term investments with the expectation of long-term gains. In short, there would be few short-term political gains.

The second would require sending some of your most able generals out to war. You know the war is going to be long and costly. You are unsure of how much gold you will get even after you win the war, but rumours suggest a possibility of acquiring vast quantities that would instantly make your country rich. Also, war-mongering has its benefits: It riles up people and unites them behind a common enemy. A chance of winning the war would ensure immediate and long-term political success. And you would not need to do the hard work of building state capacity at home. It sounds like a better bet, except that the probability of a win is unknown.

In the choice between spending Rs 100 on either building a more capable and effective tax administration or waging war against black money, we seem to have opted almost exclusively for option two. In doing so, we are sacrificing the historic need and opportunity to reform tax administration within India. Consider the facts: We rank 158th globally with regard to ease of paying taxes. Our tax-GDP ratio is hovering around 5.5 per cent, among the lowest in the world, and has not kept pace with recent growth rates. This points to a lack of investment in state capacity commensurate with a rapidly growing and changing economy. Less than 5 per cent of our population pays progressive income tax, while everyone pays the more inegalitarian indirect taxes every time they consume. This also points to low state capacity, especially since indirect taxes are relatively easier to collect. Consequently, much of our population does not feel the direct burden of taxation. In the long term, this dilutes the level of accountability demanded from the state. The power to demand greater oversight of government expenditure is critical in any democracy.

The world over, developed democracies keep making continuous but major reforms to tax administration. Countries such as the UK, US, Germany, Australia and Sweden have made important changes to their tax administration systems in the areas of taxpayer registration, processing customer information, information collection about taxable transactions, and investment in research. In India, the Tax Administration Reform Commission has already made a number of important recommendations to systematically reform the tax administrative machinery in line with global best practices. Among other suggestions, it recommends the establishment of an independent evaluation office to continuously review tax administration and suggest areas of reform. The TARC has put forward a review of global best practices in each area of tax administration which, if implemented, would substantially improve the collection and administration of taxes.

The implementation of these and other related reforms are urgently required, and they are a long-term investment for the benefit of the country. While it is important to catch tax evaders who have stashed money abroad, it is perhaps more important to collect taxes from somewhat more than 5 per cent of the resident population. A country with low state capacity such as ours cannot afford to focus equally on both goals. A prioritisation has to be made and, so far, in public discourse, we seem to have opted for an option that holds the illusory promise of windfall gain rather than building durable state institutions.

The writer is with NIPFP, Delhi, and ‘The Indian Express

My paper on parliamentary oversight in India

9 Aug

My paper proposing a framework for Parliamentary Oversight in India has been published in the NUJS Law Review (link). A brief description of the paper: 

The need for a strong monitoring mechanism of the Executive in India has been made clearer by recent allegations of corruption against high-ranking officials of the central government. The Indian Parliament is the ideal institution to perform such a monitoring function through oversight of the central executive. The Executive in India is directly accountable to the Parliament. Making oversight by Parliament stronger and more effective would therefore increase the accountability of the Executive. Additionally, an increased oversight role would allow for greater policy inputs from Parliament to the Executive. It would also increase the general level of expertise within Parliament by making parliamentarians more technocratic and giving them greater avenues for specialization in different aspects of policymaking. This has held true in varying degrees in different countries as examined in this paper. Enacting a law that formalizes mechanisms of oversight within Parliament, especially within the committee system, can create such a framework in India. The central focus of a strong oversight framework is the system of parliamentary committees. Reinvigorating existing committees by giving them greater autonomy, clearer powers and research support are central tenets of the proposals made in this paper. Along with restructuring parliamentary committees, the incentive structure for Indian parliamentarians to conduct oversight is also examined, and proposals are suggested to ensure they perform their oversight function effectively. Such a law should reshape the way Parliamentary business is conducted with a view to holding government accountable, while at the same time allowing the central executive to function independently, and with greater efficiency.”

Protecting the Harassed and the Harasser

19 Jul

The Supreme Court recently passed a controversial judgment condemning ‘automatic’ arrests by police in dowry harassment cases against husbands and in-laws. The judgment has received a mixed response. While its supporters praise the Court’s strong statement against misuse of this law by women, others raise concerns over the rights and safety of victim women. While the Court rightly asks for the correct implementation of criminal procedures to avoid harassment by misuse of law, its lack of a simultaneous emphasis on the need for protection of women is problematic.

The judgment speaks of the duties of police officers while making arrests and applies to cases beyond the context of cruelty against women. Thus, one way to understand the ratio of the judgment is to look at it as a criminal procedure case divorced from its gender context. The Court merely reminds police officers of their duty under the Criminal Procedure Code (Cr.P.C.) to exercise discretion while arresting even in non-bailable and cognizable offences and to do away with the attitude “to arrest first and then proceed with the rest”. Instead of mechanically making arrests on receiving an allegation, the police should first arrive at a reasonable satisfaction as to the genuineness of the allegation based on some investigation. Under the Cr.P.C., for offences with punishment of seven or less years, like the provision on cruelty in dispute here, the police can arrest without a warrant only when it is satisfied that arrest is necessary for reasons such as preventing tampering with evidence, preventing threat to witnesses, and preventing commission of further offence. An absolute non-exercise of discretion, whether by mechanically arresting or not arresting, is problematic and may cause unnecessary harassment and humiliation to the arrested person. The judgment requires police officers to forward to the Magistrate not only their reasons for arrest, but also reasons for their decision not to arrest, in the latter case within two weeks from the date of institution of the case. Failure to follow these guidelines may render police officers liable for both departmental action and contempt of court proceedings.

While the operative part of the judgment is written largely in such criminal jurisprudence terms, presenting the judgment in this gender-neutral manner will rob it of its true context and hide its possible implications. Even while the direction is to police officers, the Court is more concerned about harassment by “disgruntled wives” than by the police. The Court emphasizes how women are misusing the criminal provision that was intended to protect them from cruelty by husbands or his relatives, and causing harassment through arrests not only of the husband, but also his old or distant relatives, whether male or female. The Court also notes that marriage is a revered institution in India and seems to lament the increase in matrimonial disputes in the country.

The exclusive focus on misuse instead of use of the provision makes the apparently harmless verdict reiterating the criminal procedural law a questionable and unbalanced one. While the misuse of anti-dowry provisions may be common, but even more widespread is the incidence of dowry-related violence. In its attempt to “maintain a balance between individual liberty and societal order”, the Court totally ignores the concerns of women who may actually be victims of harassment. Patriarchal norms normalizing domestic violence, lack of support for women who fight against such violence and the private domain within which the abuse takes place already make legal remedies difficult to access for many women. In this context, valid concerns were raised around the judgment’s implications for a woman deciding whether or not to use criminal law to her rescue and for the safety of a woman who decides to use criminal law but is not able to procure arrest of the accused persons.

There is a need to take on board concerns both regarding protection of women from domestic violence and regarding harassment caused by arrests of falsely accused persons. While the Supreme Court takes care of the latter, it ignores the former. As a matter of fact, the law already provides this protection in the form of the Domestic Violence Act (DVA). The definition of “domestic violence” under the Act covers physical, mental and economic abuse and includes violence related to dowry demands. It further places a duty on a police officer who receives a complaint of domestic violence to inform the aggrieved woman of her rights to receive protection under the DVA. Thus, even where the police may not arrest the accused persons immediately, they may still assist the complainant woman to use the DVA machinery and seek protection and other reliefs.

While the Court reiterates Cr.P.C. provisions to curtail harassment by misuse of dowry laws, it surprisingly misses out a mention of DVA that can simultaneously be used to provide protection to abused women. The police officers need to be reminded of their duty under both these laws. One can hope that this slip by the apex Court will not result in dilution of the actual exercise of their duty under the other law.

Post on revising the regulatory framework for FDI and capital controls

21 Apr

I have a co-authored post on the reforming the FDI regulatory framework in India on Ajay Shah’s blog here. The post was published on April 21, 2014, and has been co-authored by me, Ajay Shah, and Arjun Rajagopal. The post is being reproduced below. 

 

Capital controls against FDI in aviation: An example of bad governance in India

by Anirudh Burman, Ajay Shah and Arjun Rajagopal.

FDI in aviation was liberalised by the Reserve Bank of India on September 21, 2012 through a change in the Foreign Exchange Management (Transfer or Issue of Security by a Person Resident outside India) Regulations, 2000 (link). Following that change, private players began putting together a number of complex transactions between Indian and foreign companies such as Jet-Etihad, AirAsia-Tata, and Tata-Singapore Airlines.

On November 20, 2013, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) revised its `Civil Aviation Requirements’ or “CAR” (CAR 4.1.5 to 4.1.16) to state that a domestic airline company cannot enter into an agreement with a foreign investing entity (including foreign airlines) that may give such foreign entity a right to control the management of the domestic operator ( link). This change in regulations has major consequences for some of the transactions which are in progress.
There are two important deficiencies in this action by DGCA:

  1. The CAR makes repeated mention of the requirement of control, without clarifying what the term `control’ means. This creates legal risk for transacting parties.
  2. No rationale has been offered to justify the use of the coercive power of the State via the CAR; no estimates of the costs or benefits of this regulatory action have been provided.

What does `control’ mean?

Rule 4.1.8 of the CAR (link) states:

A Scheduled Air Transport Service/Domestic Scheduled Passenger Airline shall not enter into an agreement with a foreign investing institution or a foreign airline, which may give such foreign investing institution or foreign airlines or others on behalf of them, the right to control the management of the domestic operator.

However, the `right to control the management’ has not been defined. This lack of clarity is compounded by two other regulatory requirements: (a) the directors appointed by the foreign entity cannot exceed more than one-third of the total (CAR 4.1.7), and (b) the substantial ownership and effective control of a domestic operator has to be vested in Indian nationals (CAR 3.1).

The new requirements must mean that `the right to control the management’ involves a form of control over and above these two earlier requirements, but no definition of that form of control is offered. Such lack of precision in drafting of laws results in increased legal risk and should be avoided.

Lack of transparency

When the coercive power of the State is wielded by the executive, this should be accompanied by appropriate checks and balances. Good practice in regulatory governance requires that when regulators wish to make changes to regulations, and thus affect the rights of private parties, the regulators must furnish reasons for making those changes. This increases transparency, predictability, and accountability.

In the case of investments, an investor who commits resources would want an element of control in order to ensure his money is not stolen or wasted. A substantial investment in a company is thus often accompanied by rights regarding management and control of the company. If a regulatory requirement interferes with these rights of investors, the onus is on the regulator to explain why. The changes to the CAR affect the rights of investors and potential investors in the aviation industry, but DGCA has not furnished any reasons for its revisions.

Regulatory actions must not be arbitrary acts of God. They must be steeped in the rule of law. The Draft Indian Financial Code, when enacted, will ensure financial sector regulators make qualitatively better regulations by blocking these kinds of mistakes. All draft regulations will have to be accompanied by reasons for the proposed regulations, as well as a cost-benefit analysis of the proposed regulations. These will be made available for public comment, before the final regulations are adopted. This regulation-making process will result in clearer and better regulations, and will enhance the legitimacy of the regulations and of regulators. The adoption of a similar process by DGCA would have led to a better outcome.

Barriers to international economic engagement: A strategic view

Consider trade barriers. The Indian State has the power to introduce customs duties. A number of government bodies undoubtedly have a major stake in the design of customs duties, and may even have critical expertise in the matter. Nonetheless, the power to introduce and modify customs duties is vested in a single authority — the Ministry of Finance. The Ministry of Textiles, for example, has no power to change the customs duty on imported cloth. This is a healthy arrangement: The Ministry of Finance is responsible for maintaining a unified strategic outlook on the question of trade barriers. The Ministry of Textiles can engage with the Ministry of Finance and suggest changes in tariffs, but responsibility for formulating and promulgating a coherent policy ultimately rests exclusively with Ministry of Finance.

This same strategy is required in the field of capital controls. If multiple regulators or government departments set about writing capital controls, we will have a balkanised mess.

Indeed, the current capital controls based framework is just such a balkanised mess. In the absence of a single governing law for foreign investment, a number of agencies have prescribed foreign investor regulations. The types of capital control restrictions and their rationale can be outlined as:

  1. Entry restrictions by financial regulators such as RBI and Ministry of Finance, usually to promote monetary policy and financial stability (under the Foreign Exchange Management Act, but not restricted to it);
  2. Entry restrictions imposed by DIPP and Ministry of Finance on grounds of national security (may include consideration of factors listed under FEMA as well); and
  3. Regulatory restrictions (including on control and ownership) imposed by sectoral regulators.

This multiplicity of regulations also leads to uncertainty of regulatory objectives. Investors have no idea of what criteria is used to assess their investments, and grant them business permissions. It is important to recognize that the justifications used to impose regulatory restrictions for relying on the distinctions between private and public, or domestic and foreign entities, is that these distinctions are reasonable proxies for the other characteristics (national security, systemic risk) that are a valid basis for differential treatment. As in so many areas of regulation, the misapplication of easy proxies for characteristics that are difficult to assess becomes a glaring reminder of regulatory uncertainty. It is important that regulatory objectives be identified clearly in relevant statues and regulations.

In addition to the legal and regulatory uncertainty created by such a multiplicity of regulators and regulations, the regulations themselves may violate India’s obligations under various multilateral and bilateral investment treaties: Many, if not, most such agreements provide for national treatment of investment once it has been allowed to enter the domestic market. Regulators should not be allowed to impose regulatory restrictions after foreign investment has already entered the domestic market. Under this principle of competitive neutrality, there should be no difference in the conditions imposed on the State Bank of India and those imposed on Etihad, when they invest in Jet Airways.

This requires more than administrative changes. A reform of the legalframework is essential. For example, the restrictions in the CAR appear to be grounded in the expansive powers granted to DGCA under the Aircraft Act, 1934. Section 5 of the Act (link) states:

Power of Central Government to make rules. – (1) Subject to the provisions of section 14, the Central Government may, by notification in the Official Gazette, make rules regulating the manufacture, possession, use, operation, sale, import or export of any aircraft or class of aircraft and for securing the safety of aircraft operation.

Those same powers could ground preferential treatment in other areas of regulation. To the extent that other regulatory bodies with responsibilities for other sectors have similar powers, those sectors too are vulnerable to violations of the principle of competitive neutrality.

The report of the FSLRC proposes a cleaner, clearer regulatory framework for foreign investment, one which is consistent with these obligations. Section 2.5 of the report states:

The Commission envisages a regulatory framework where governance standards for regulated entities will not depend on the form of organisation of the financial firm or its ownership structure. This will yield ‘competitive neutrality’. In this framework, the regulatory treatment of companies, co-operatives and partnerships; public and private financial firms; anddomestic and foreign firms, will be identical.

The draft Indian Financial Code, which encodes the principles articulated in the report, explicitly requires all regulators to maintain competitive neutrality while framing regulations. Section 84 (Principles of consumer protection) and section 141 (Principles of prudential regulation) contain the following identical language:

[C]ompetition in the markets for financial products and financial services is desirable in the interests of consumers and therefore… there should be competitive neutrality in the treatment of financial service providers;

This will ensure that sectoral regulators in the financial sector will not be able to discriminate against foreign and domestic firms/investment.

Pending the introduction of the Code, it would be helpful to incorporate its underlying principles into the existing regulatory framework. For example, the BJP has suggested that they will block FDI in retail but they will remove all capital controls against FDI in other sectors. Any government wishing to carry out such a change would need all capital controls be defined at only one place, where a single policy decision is taken. After this, it should not be possible for any other department of government or a regulatory agency to introduce capital controls.

The required single-window system should have the following characteristics:

  1. A comprehensive definition of foreign investment;
  2. A rule-of-law based mechanism for the government to allow/prohibit entry of foreign investment in specific sectors;
  3. A single regulatory barrier for foreign investment before it can enter the domestic market. Currently FIPB is an example of such a barrier;
  4. Clear documentation of approval of foreign investment that must be binding on all government authorities;
  5. Clear enumeration of reasons for which foreign investment can be restricted, and who can impose these restrictions (without any catch-all provisions like “for any other reason”);
  6. A positive obligation on the government to ensure competitive neutrality, OR a restriction preventing the government from discriminating against foreign investment once the investment has been allowed to enter India; and
  7. A review mechanism where foreign investors whose investment has either (a) been rejected, or (b) been subjected to discriminatory treatment compared to a domestic investor, can seek redressal.

Conclusion

There is great outrage in India today, against a capricious State that is a major source of risk for firms. These failures on capital controls are one important component of that problem. It is the right of politicians to interfere with international economic integration – e.g. to block FDI in retail or not or to have tariffs on import of apples or not. But there should be a single-barrier where this political decision is made.

Putting Carts Before Horses. And How?

9 Apr

This post was first published by Humorlessindianlawyer.blogspot.in on April 8, 2014.

Imagine,

living in India with a Parliament that makes laws, an executive that implements these laws and a court system that interprets these laws. Now, imagine Parliament making the following law:

Right to regulate all Economic Activities Completely Act, 2014

Section 1. This Act applies to all of India. Except J&K, because we don’t feel like it.

Section 2. The central government will have the power to ban any economic activity if: (a) it is useful, (b) people can make money from it, (c) it increases the work of government officers, or (d) the concerned officer is in a bad mood that morning.

Section 3. Yes, we really mean business. This time.

Section 4. Notwithstanding thereto anything therefore whereas provided that “economic activity” includes sand mining, coal mining, writing books or, buying, selling, making, eating, drinking, consuming, excreting, advertising any product or service, but does not include the buying or selling of votes.

Section 5. The central government can make rules for the purpose of implementing this Act.

Section 6. This Act will become applicable on the date the central government notifies it in our super cool official gazette. The central government can selectively notify some sections of this Act on days it rains.

Continue imagining,

some super-zealous government officer notifies Section 5 of the Act, but forgets to notify any other section. So out of the entire Act, only Section 5 is in force and applicable law. Thank god, you may say. But the central government goes ahead and starts making rules banning sand mining.

But how? Sections 2 and 4, the two most bad-ass sections have not even been notified yet! People challenge this stupid Act and the rule made under it in the courts.

Dreams get real

In 1988, the Indian Supreme Court made this nightmarish dystopia a reality. In Ajay Canu vs. Union of India the Supreme Court was hearing an appeal from the High Court of Andhra Pradesh. The petitioner had challenged a rule by the state of Andhra Pradesh that required all persons driving motor cycles and scooters to wear helmets.

One of the issues the petitioner raised was that this rule was made under Section 85-A of the Motor Vehicles Act that had not yet been enforced (the other issue was that the Act violated the freedom of movement under the Constitution). Without the section in the parent Act coming into force, no rule, surely could be made under that section? The court swatted away this contention in a majestic display of its wisdom.

The Court pointed to Section 91 of the Motor Vehicles Act. Section 91 gives the government the power to make rules for implementing the Motor Vehicles Act (Importantly, while Section 85-A had not been enforced, Section 91 had been). The Court said it would proceed on the assumption that Section 85-A had not been enforced. However, even if it were not enforced, Section 91 gives the power to the government to make the rules requiring drivers of motorcycles to wear helmets!

Lets re-state this: The Section that gives the power to require drivers of motor cycles to wear helmets has not been enforced. The Section that gives the government the power to make rules for implementing this section is in force. Without the specific power, the rule-making power is useless, one would think. Section 91 specifically states “The … government may make rules for the purpose of carrying into effect the provisions of this chapter…“. And yet, the Supreme Court says it is ok to make rules enforcing a Section that is not even applicable law yet!.

Even worse, this case concerned a challenge to the fundamental right to movement. The Supreme Court held that the rules made by the Andhra Pradesh government did not violate this fundamental right. The net effect of this decision is that the government can impose restrictions on fundamental rights (including, on the freedom to carry on trade and commerce, say, by banning sand mining) by passing a law, and notifying only one section that states that the government can make rules to implement this Act!!

This of course, works brilliantly if you are the government. Suppose the law that is used to do all this provides a right to challenge the government order. Simple. Don’t notify the useless giving-losers-a-chance-to-whine section, and you are good to go!

Constituency-wise Manifestoes, their regulation and consequences

12 Mar

1 Introduction

Today’s Mint carries an article on how political parties have increasingly moved to a system of “localised” manifestoes for the 2014 general election. This is a significant trend that began with Aam Aadmi Party’s Delhi election campaign where it released local manifestoes for each assembly constituency (link). The BJP followed suit in Delhi, and according to news reports, is planning to do the same for the national elections (link). The Congress under Rahul Gandhi is sticking to one manifesto, but its leaders are making the right noises about making manifesto preparation a participatory process.

At the same time, the Election Commission of India has recently started regulating election manifestoes under its Model Code of Conduct pursuant to a Supreme Court judgement. It has stated that election manifestoes should explain the “rationale” for its proposals and how these proposals will be funded. Both these developments, (a) the localization of manifestoes, and (b) the regulation of manifestoes are significant markers for electoral democracy in India.

2 Local Manifestoes

Election manifestoes represent a charter of goals that political parties will strive to achieve if voted into power. The adoption of a system of local manifestoes is both exciting as a tool of political participation, and worrying if one pauses to think of how the aggregation of local manifestoes will work to inform a national government.

On the one hand, this localization process is heartening. Indian political parties seem to be involving the electorate directly in the preparation of manifestoes, and paying greater attention to their voices. This is a marked departure from a process where, as Mint states, “a group of leaders would discuss and determine the content of the manifesto.” AAP has clearly brought in an innovative idea for running political campaigns, and it is being tested by both BJP and the Congress. It makes manifestoes more relevant, and increases (to at least some extent), the level of accountability of elected leaders as voters may have greater recollection of a local manifesto than a national one. If developed properly, this system of local manifestoes could also help make elections more issue-based, albeit at a level where local issues are more relevant. It could also improve the transmission of political messages from voters to politicians by giving the latter a clear charter to try and implement, rather than be a passive responder to powerful local interest groups.

However, while democracy is about representation, but it is also about leadership. The benefit of a centralized process of making a manifesto is that a political party takes an a priori call on what it stands for, and wishes to achieve. This manifesto can then be tempered once voters respond to the manifesto during the campaign. However, here the process of political communication emphasizes leadership and vision. It allows political parties to communicate what they stand for, rather than just try and respond to every constituency’s preference. Incorporating a process where manifesto preparation is completely decentralized creates a risk of parties losing sight of any non-negotiable principles they may stand for.

Obviously, both these arguments assume that it political parties will follow only one of these two approaches, while most political campaigns are likely a blend of both central decision-making and feedback from local constituencies. And given the inordinate amount of power leaders of political parties enjoy, a decentralized process may be the best thing to have occurred in electoral democracy recently. “Garibi hatao” was enormously successful for Indira Gandhi, but it is debatable whether she would have come up with it if the commnication of voter preferences were better. Ditto for NDA’s unsuccessful “India shining” campaign.

Lastly, this argument pre-supposes that political parties and voters take manifestoes seriously! It is in this context that the recent judgement of the Supreme Court (linked above), and the consequent actions of the Election Commission are so significant.

3 Regulation of election manifestoes

The Election Commission has brought election manifestoes under the Model Code of Conduct. In para 3 of “VIII Guidelines on Election Manifestos” of the MCC, the EC states:

(i) The election manifesto shall not contain anything repugnant to the ideals and principles enshrined in the Constitution and further that it shall be consistent with the letter and spirit of other provisions of Model Code of Conduct. (ii) The Directive Principles of State Policy enshrined in the Constitution enjoin upon the State to frame various welfare measures for the citizens and therefore there can be no objection to the promise of such welfare measures in election manifestos. However, political parties should avoid making those promises which are likely to vitiate the purity of the election process or exert undue influence on the voters in exercising their franchise. (iii) In the interest of transparency, level playing field and credibility of promises, it is expected that manifestos also reflect the rationale for the promises and broadly indicate the ways and means to meet the financial requirements for it. Trust of voters should be sought only on those promises which are possible to be fulfilled.

Para (iii) is extremely significant. It requires political parties, for the first time, to (a) explain the reason why the political party is making a particular promise, and (b) explain what resources, including finances it will utilise to fulfill these promises. This is extremely important for the following reasons:

  1. Political parties will have to explain why they want to do something. Ensuring they give proper reasons for wanting to do something will make it more difficult to throw in mindless freebies without any justification. Also, it will reduce room for ideological inconsistencies. Since they have to provide rationales for every promise, it will lead to greater scrutiny of the political party’s overall philosophy, and therefore require parties to think harder about what to put in the manifesto. Lastly, it will reduce incentives to throw in a laundry list of promises without any intention of fulfilling them. Manifestoes have to be readable documents and they have to help the political campaign project an easily communicable message. To ensure this is maintained, the process of picking what to promise will become more selective once the reasons for the promises also have to be included.
  2. Political parties will have to explain what financial resources will be used to achieve its promises. Even if at present they have to only “broadly indicate” how they wil do so, it is a milestone in nudging political parties towards being fiscally responsible. If a political party wants to spend 25% of the country’s budget on defence, it will have to show how it intends to also deliver on its promise of giving everyone free hospitals, food, television sets, electricity, water and the like at the same time. Even if the average voter is not concerned with these issues to start off, it will lead to greater expert and media scrutiny of election promises. We can at least begin to aspire for substantive debates on poll-promises rather than a game of upmanship based on who can promise how much.

 

Should political parties be subject to the Right to Information Act?

10 Jun

The Central Information Commission (CIC), on June 3, 2013, stated that political parties are “public authorities” under the Right to Information Act, 2005 (RTI Act). Public authorities under the RTI Act are required to make pro active disclosures regarding their organization and its functioning. In addition, they have to appoint Public Information Officers (PIOs). Members of the public can write to PIOs as per the procedure under the RTI Act, and get any information about that public authority which is not an official secret. The CIC’s decision has been uploaded here: CIC_order.

While I am an ardent supporter of greater transparency into the working of political parties, I do have reservations about the CIC’s decision. In this post, I intend to address one such reservation: information asymmetry. The RTI Act gives individuals the right to receive information from public authorities. However, it does not mandate that such information received should then also be further shared with a wider public. Therefore, if I receive some information from a political party under the RTI Act, I have the right to not share such information with anyone else. Therefore, there is an asymmetry in information between me, and every other member of the public, who would also be interested in this information. How I choose to use such information is then up to me.

I am of the opinion that this asymmetry in information is not an issue when citizens seek information from government departments about ration cards and electricity bills. Those pieces of information pertain to individuals, and there is nothing to be gained by making such information public to all. However, the chief concern about political parties are these: (a) their sources of funding, (b) their manner of expenditure, and (c) how they use any public money/subsidies given to them. This information should be provided to everyone freely. It should not be left to an individual applicant to file an RTI application to get this information. Therefore, it would be much better if the Election Commission frames rules requiring disclosure by political parties of all their sources of income and their utilisation of public funds.

Given below are excerpts from a book titled “Funding of Political Parties and Election Campaigns” which show how parties are funded, and what reporting requirements exist in some other countries around the world (The information given below is copied directly from the linked document). In light of these, I would be very interested in hearing your thoughts on the same. Please feel free to comment and respond.

Africa

Sources: Donations are the modal source of political financing in Africa. The major sources of funding remain big business leaders or corporate elites.

 

Indirect funding: Free air time on radio and television or free advertising space in the publicly-owned print media. Inmany African countries the opposition parties have been too weak and divided to succeed in extracting from the government even the most basic aid the state can give to political parties, namely, free and equal access to the government-owned and -controlled mass media. In Kenya it took the threat of a lawsuit and the personal intervention of the visiting SecretaryGeneral of the Commonwealth to secure equal access for the opposition parties – 90 seconds per day “paid up” advertising on Kenya Broadcasting Corporation’s radio and television, and live coverage “where possible” of their rallies.

 

UK

Disclosure requirements: Parties must publish both the names of donors and the exact amounts of their donations when they amount to GBP 5.000 (Int’l $ 6.900) or more annually, or GBP 1.000 (Int’l $ 1.400) at the constituency level. Under the new law, audited annual accounts of parties’ income and expenditures will have to be delivered to the Electoral Commission within six months of each year’s end.

 

Indirect funding: In the UK free broadcasting time is conventionally allocated to parties both during election campaigns and between elections by the BBC, and on a voluntary basis by commercial channels, which consider it a public duty.

 

Australia

Disclosure requirements: At present each party’s agent is required to give detailed information in their annual report of transactions of an aggregate of AUD 500 (Int’l $ 330) or more with persons or organizations.For those over AUD 1.500 (Int’l $ 1.000), names and addresses must be supplied. Non-monetary donations (subsidies in kind by private donors), such as loans of company cars or business jets, must also be included, with a market price equivalent.

The parties must disclose totals of their receipts, payments and debts. The annual reports, covering the period from 1 July to 30 June, must be lodged with the AEC by 20 October. Although they are not published they become available for public inspection at the AEC offices from 1 February of each year.

 

Indirect funding: In Australia free media time has traditionally been provided by state-owned radio and television services for policy speeches (which correspond to a party election manifesto) and advertisements, and by commercial radio and television stations for policy speeches. In Australia donations up to AUD 100 (Int’l $ 67) by individuals are tax-exempt.

 

Canada

Disclosure requirements: In Canada the source and amount of contributions over CAD 200 (Int’l $ 160) have to be disclosed. Individuals will be mentioned by name and the amount donated stated. Privacy concerns, however, mean that the address, employer and occupation of the donor and even the date of the donation are not included in the information disclosed on contributions.

The chief agent of a registered party has to transmit to the Chief Electoral Officer (CEO) an annual return of the party’s receipts and expenses (other than election expenses) within six month of the end of the fiscal (i.e., calendar) year. In addition, within six months from the date of a general election the chief agent must file a return of the election expenses incurred by the party.

 

Indirect Funding: In Canada radio and television stations have to make up to 6,5 hours of prime time available for paid advertising or political broadcasts by the parties during the last four weeks of the election campaign. In Canada federal and provincial tax credits for political donations and legal provisions for issuing tax receipts have supported efforts to solicit small donations from individual citizens and small businesses

 

USA

Sources: In the USA stipulations of the FECA and decisions of the Supreme Court have distinguished between “hard money” – money directly given to a party, an issue or a candidate’s committees – and funds which are raised beyond the limits set by the FECA – “soft money”. The domain of “soft money” was extended considerably when the Supreme Court, on various occasions, lifted the ban on certain contributions. Contributions by individuals are the most important source of income for US federal parties. Legally these contributions belong to the category of hard money, i.e., they go directly to a candidate’s campaign committee for use at its discretion.

 

Disclosures: Disclosure is at the heart of public supervision of political finance in the USA. The FECA requires candidate committees, party committees and other PACs to file periodic reports disclosing the sources of their funds. Candidates must identify, for example, all PACs and party committees which gave them a contribution. All committees must identify individuals who gave to them more than USD 200 in one year. With respect to independent expenditures the FECA requires persons (and parties since 1991) making such independent expenditures (soft money) to disclose the sources of the funds they used, although there are no limits on independent expenditures.

 

All candidate committees, party committees and other PACs are obliged by the FECA to file periodic reports on the money they raise and spend. In addition, candidates or candidate committees must report all expenditures exceeding USD 200 per year to any individual or vendor. Persons and parties undertaking independent expenditure (soft money) have to report the amounts of their expenses, even though there are no limits on independent expenditures. All reports filed are open for public scrutiny at the FEC, a public agency.

 


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