The Finance Bill, 2017, has faced criticism from some quarters, based on the decision to rationalise numerous tribunals, many of which have overlapping functions, and come at a significant cost. The government has also been criticised for choosing to usher in these reforms through the Money Bill route. The fact is, the reforms will promote good governance and have been undertaken within the legal, constitutional and parliamentary framework.
Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s leadership, the NDA government has initiated significant reforms including the promotion of e-courts, the establishment of commercial courts and the formation of Commercial Division and Commercial Appellate Division in high courts through legislation in 2015. It has brought amendments to the Arbitration and Conciliation Act,1996, formulated the National Litigation Policy, LIMBS (digital monitoring of court cases) and set up a High Level Committee under Justice B.N. Srikrishna on arbitration in addition to infrastructure support to the courts to ease their logjam.
For some time, the functioning of a large number of tribunals had been a matter of public debate. Concerns were expressed over rationalising their functioning and having uniform terms and conditions, including salaries and allowances. Thirty-six tribunals, which have been studied by the Indian Law Institute and several other committees, were called to be rationalised and merged. The finance minister’s Budget speech announcement — “Over the years, the number of tribunals have multiplied with overlapping functions. We propose to rationalise the number of tribunals and merge tribunals wherever appropriate” — aims at achieving those aspirations. The salary structure was also proposed to be rationalised while providing for uniform service conditions. Accordingly, it was made a Finance Bill to achieve merger/rationalisation for faster adjudication.
Disputes involving the determination of rights between state and citizens — which the traditional judicial system was not equipped to cope with after new forms of litigation — led to the establishment of tribunals as a stop-gap arrangement. Various aspects, along with merits and demerits, worldwide practices, the relationship of tribunals in different Articles of the Constitution, were comprehensively examined for the first time by the first Law Commission of India in its 12th report titled “Income Tax Act, 1922”(1958), followed by its 14th report titled “Reform of Judicial Administration” (1958), its 58th report “Structure and Jurisdiction of the Higher Judiciary” (1974), its 124th report “The High Court Arrears — A Fresh Look” (1988), its 162nd report “Review of Functioning of Central Administrative Tribunal; Customs, Excise and Gold (Control) Appellate Tribunal and Income-tax Appellate Tribunal” (1988) and its 215th report “L. Chandra Kumar be revisited by Larger Bench of Supreme Court”(2008).
With respect to a Money Bill, after it is passed by the Lok Sabha, it is transmitted to the Rajya Sabha for its recommendations. If the bill is returned by the Rajya Sabha with recommendations, the Lok Sabha may accept or reject all or any of these. If the Lok Sabha accepts any recommendations, the bill is deemed to have been passed by both Houses. If the Lok Sabha does not accept any recommendations, the Money Bill is deemed to have been passed by both Houses in the form in which it was passed by the Lok Sabha without any amendments recommended by the Rajya Sabha.
In the case of the Finance (No.2) Bill, 1977 and the Finance Bill, 1978, recommendations made by the Rajya Sabha were not accepted by the Lok Sabha on August 2, 1977 and May 11, 1978 respectively. In the Finance Bill, 2017 as well, amendments suggested by the Rajya Sabha were not accepted by the Lok Sabha. The bills were deemed to have been passed by the Houses in the form these were passed by the Lok Sabha, and sent for presidential assent. There is a proper constitutional mechanism laying down the procedure and conditions under which the Speaker of the Lok Sabha declares a bill to be a Money Bill. The celebrated Speaker, G.V. Mavalankar himself ruled that anything incidental to a Money Bill will also be treated as a Money Bill.
Besides 19 reports relating to arrears and backlogs of court cases, the power, privileges, functions and authority of different tribunals have been critically examined by the Supreme Court in cases including S.P. Sampath Kumar (1985), L. Chandra Kumar (1997), R.K. Jain (1993), R. Gandhi (2005) and Gujarat Urja Vikas Nigam Limited (2016). Keeping in view the objectives of rationalisation and, at the same time, to continue to resolve disputes through tribunals, it was thought expedient that some tribunals may be merged. In some cases — such as the Cyber Appellate Tribunal being merged with the Telecom Disputes Settlement and Appellate Tribunal (TDSAT) — there is greater synergy and effective adjudication, besides saving a huge amount of tax payers’ money. The government was conscious of the need to reduce unnecessary expenditure, avoid overlapping jurisdiction and ensure optimum utilisation of resources. There was a lot of inconsistency earlier; now, the tenure, terms and conditions, eligibility, etc., of the chairperson, vice-chairperson and members will be uniform, as prescribed by the law itself as also the salary structure. The merger of tribunals, therefore, fulfills the assurances of the finance minister in the budget speech.