General Studies- 2:
Laws for the betterment of vulnerable sections
- GST on mobility aids of disabled
- Enforcement of maintenance laws for abandoned women
Environment, Pollution and Conservation
- States to get air pollution funds based on meeting ‘performance targets’
- Green Hydrogen
1) GST on mobility aids of disabled:
Why in news?
- On October 27, the Supreme Court of India heard brief arguments on the constitutional validity of the levy of Goods and Services Tax (GST) on mobility aids used by disabled citizens.
- The petitioner, in Nipun Malhotra vs. Union of India, argued that the tax imposed on these products, which included wheelchairs, tricycles for the disabled, braille paper and braille watches, was patently discriminatory.
- But the Court indicated that the scope of its power to review the levy was slender.
- A decision to impose a tax, it said, was a matter of policy over which the judiciary ought not to ordinarily interfere.
- In adjourning the case, it suggested that the petitioner exhaust his options by submitting his grievances to the GST Council, which is the governing body responsible for determining which products are taxed, and at what rate.
Tax and a fundamental right
- But should the GST Council reject the petitioner’s plea, it would be not showing care of the Court to test the legitimacy of the levy.
- Much as it might be keen to ensure that the judiciary does not sit on judgment over matters that fall within the domain of legislative and executive competence, it must recognize that there is nothing inherently distinct about taxing laws; they are in no way plenary and unamenable to judicial review.
- Quite to the contrary, taxes have a direct bearing on how society is arranged.
- The nature and rate of tax imposed on a product can impact both a person’s freedom and a person’s right to be treated with equal care and concern.
- Therefore, it ought to be well within an independent judiciary’s province — as the top courts in Canada and Colombia, among others, have recently held — to examine whether or not an imposition of a tax violates a fundamental right.
Market forces are at play
- At the time of GST inception, the central government claimed that the causes of liberty and equality would benefit from the States pooling their sovereignty together with that of the Union.
- But what we have seen since is that with the withering of the States’ fiscal autonomy, it is the dictates of the market alone that appear to determine how and what goods are taxed.
- The levy on commodities used by the disabled is a prime example of this.
- Until the advent of the GST, mobility aids were almost entirely immune from indirect taxes.
- In virtually every State, exemptions were granted on the payment of value-added-tax on such goods.
- The GST did away altogether with this exemption.
- Indeed, it was only after substantial outcry that the originally proposed 18% tax on these devices was reduced to 5%.
- But even at that rate, as the petition in the Supreme Court demonstrates, the levy increases manifold the prices of commodities that allow the disabled to perform the most basic tasks — in this case, to walk or to read.
- Despite this affront to dignity, the government claims that it cannot relieve mobility aids from taxation, because to do so will disincentive domestic manufacturers.
- “The 5% concessional GST rate, “will result in a win-win situation for both the users of such devices, the disabled persons, as well as the domestic manufacturers of such goods.”
- This argument is influenced by the GST’s structure, in particular the manner in which firms are allowed to claim credit on taxes paid by them in the making of a product.
- Under the existing regime, if the maker, say, of a wheelchair has paid taxes on commodities that serve as raw material in the process of manufacturing, it will be entitled to claim credit for the tax paid when it remits the levy collected from the eventual purchaser of the product.
- The State’s argument is that in the absence of a levy of GST on the final product, the manufacturer will be burdened with input taxes.
- Since it cannot claim any credit for those taxes paid, the prices of the final product would have higher, and, as a result, the manufacturer will be placed in a relative position of disadvantage to foreign makers.
Parliament can find a way
- This argument, though, suffers from at least two fallacies.
- First, a reading of the various notifications issued by the GST Council shows that many other products that are essential to human needs are exempt from tax — notably, in July 2018, following a sustained campaign, the levy imposed on female personal hygiene products (tampons and sanitary pads) was removed.
- Second, that the grant of an exemption in cases such as these would disentitle manufacturers from claiming input tax credit is a matter of legislative design.
- Nothing suggests that Parliament cannot find other ways to ensure that domestic manufacturers are granted credit for the taxes that they pay on inputs.
- It could, for example, exempt firms from paying taxes on inputs on the condition that such inputs will be used to manufacture mobility aids.
A reasonable classification
- The Constitution’s equality code requires such a classification to be a reasonable one.
- In the case of mobility aids, the oppressive nature of the levy is evident.
- The tax places a prohibitive burden on the ability of disabled citizens to access the most basic goods, to lead lives with dignity.
- Given that the classification rests on a state of disability.
- The onus must, therefore, rest on the government to show the Court that it had cogent reasons for treating these goods as distinct from other commodities that are exempt from tax.
- A failure to discharge this onus ought to render the levy illegitimate.
Learning lessons from others
- The GST Council can take a leaf out of the books of Canada and Australia, and grant a complete exemption on the levy imposed on mobility aids.
- A fair and just regime ought to demand nothing less.
- Taxation, after all, is a tool that is intended to augment general welfare.
- It is time we recognized that an unreasonable levy can deeply compromise fundamental human needs.
- To free taxing statutes from the ramparts of the Constitution is to risk the entrenching of inequality
Goods and Services Tax:
- On 19th December, 2014, The Constitution (122nd Amendment) Bill 2014 was introduced in the Lok Sabha and was passed by Lok Sabha in May 2015.
- Thereafter, the Constitutional Amendment Bill was moved on 1st August 2016 based on political consensus.
- The Bill was passed by the Rajya Sabha on 3rd August 2016 and by the Lok Sabha on 8th August 2016.
- After ratification by required number of State legislatures and assent of the President, the Constitutional amendment was notified as Constitution (101st Amendment) Act 2016 on 8th September, 2016.
- The Constitutional amendment paved way for introduction of Goods and Services Tax in India.
After GST Council approved the Central Goods and Services Tax Bill 2017 (The CGST Bill), the Integrated Goods and Services Tax Bill 2017 (The IGST Bill), the Union Territory Goods and Services Tax Bill 2017 (The UTGST Bill), the Goods and Services Tax (Compensation to the States) Bill 2017 (The Compensation Bill), these Bills were passed
- Thereafter, State Legislatures of different States have passed respective State Goods and Services Tax Bills.
- After the enactment of various GST laws, GST was launched with effect from 1st July 2017
GST Council structure
- As per Article 279A of the amended Constitution, the GST Council is a joint forum of the Centre and the States, and consists of the following members: –
- Union Finance Minister as Chairperson
- The Union Minister of State, in-charge of Revenue, Min. of Finance Member
- The Minister In-charge of Finance or Taxation or any other Minister nominated by each State Government
2) Enforcement of maintenance laws for abandoned women:
Why in news?
- On Wednesday, the Supreme Court leaned on these two Articles, and a host of other laws, while hearing a dispute between a Mumbai-based couples, the Supreme Court leaned on two Articles
- Article 15 (3) and 39, and set down comprehensive guidelines on allowance.
- The court ruled that an abandoned wife and children will be entitled to ‘maintenance’ from the date she applies for it in a court of law.
- In India, though more girls are going to school now, for many, the inevitable reality seems marriage before completion of higher education.
- Girls are married off early and bear children long before they should.
- This triggers a state of poor maternal health and is one of the root causes of high levels of child stunting and wasting in India.
- There is also the possibility of a marriage not working out for varied reasons, leaving the girl or young woman in extreme distress because often she is not financially independent.
- Parliament and the courts have persistently enacted legislation to give women better rights.
- Article 15(3), which states ‘nothing in this article shall prevent the State from making any special provision for women and children’, read together with Article 39, which directs state policy towards equal pay and opportunities for both men and women, and protecting the health of women and children, are two key constitutional safeguards.
The Bench of Justices Indu Malhotra and R. Subhash Reddy, outlined specifics, including “reasonable needs” of a wife and dependent children, her educational qualification, whether she has an independent source of income, and if she does, if it is sufficient, to follow for family courts, magistrates and lower courts on alimony cases.
- The Court laid down that while women can make a claim for allowance under different laws, including the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005 and Section 125 of the CrPC, or under the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, it “would be inequitable to direct the husband to pay maintenance under each of the proceedings”, urging civil and family courts to take note of previous settlements.
- Perhaps keeping in mind the vastness of India and its inequities, the Court also added how an “order or decree of maintenance” may be enforced under various laws and Section 128 of the CrPC.
- For women in India, especially the poor who are often overlooked in discourses, the top court’s words that maintenance laws will mean little if they do not prevent dependent wives and children from “falling into destitution and homeless.
3) Green Hydrogen:
Why in news?
- Italian energy infrastructure operator Snam and renewable energy firm Greenko have signed an agreement to cooperate in supporting the development of the hydrogen value chain in India.
- They will collaborate on the study of hydrogen production methods from renewables, design of hydrogen-ready infrastructure as well as on potential final applications in both industry and transport, including fuel cell mobility.
There was a renewed and rapidly growing interest in Green Hydrogen (Green-H2) globally.
- A unique multi-functional gas, Hydrogen can be used as a feedstock, fuel or an energy carrier or storage solution, Fuel Cell electric vehicles and energy storage.
- In near term, the opportunity in hydrogen is in the large industrial applications like steel, refining, methanol and ammonia.
- This opportunity can accelerate growth in the sector and play a significant role in realising India’s 450 GW renewable energy target by 2030.
What is green hydrogen?
- Green hydrogen is a clean burning fuel that eliminates emissions by using renewable energy to electrolyse water, separating the hydrogen atom within it from its molecular twin oxygen.
4) States to get air pollution funds based on meeting ‘performance targets:
Why in news?
- On Monday, Centre, based on recommendations of 15th Finance Commission, released exactly half —? 2200 crore—of allocation to 15 States
- The Central government’s decision to release only half of its budgetary allotment for combating air pollution was because of its plan to link the money disbursed to the States achieving certain ‘performance targets’.
In large cities having population above one million, polluted air is a matter of concern… Allocation for this purpose is ? 4,400 crore for 2020-2021 and parameters for the incentives would be notified by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate change.”
- The States, in turn, have to release money to local municipal bodies in 42 cities to take steps to monitor and mitigate air pollution.
- The steering committee of the National Clean Air Programme (NCAP), deliberated on the steps to be taken on the disbursal of funds.
- It was decided that the funds would be given based on certain performance targets being met.
- The NCAP envisages 102 of India’s most polluted cities reducing air pollution by 20-30% by 2024 with a reference year of 2017.
- The States, where these cities are located, have submitted a road map on how they would go about this reduction.
- The first step, according to Environment Ministry officials, would be to improve the measurement
- Improving monitoring and having trained personnel at the municipal body-level will be an important part of how these funds are used.
- Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh were the recipients of the largest tranches—of ? 396 crore and ?357 crore respectively.
- Non-attainment cities are those which were found to be consistently violating the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) from 2011-2015.
- Sixty percent of funds, i.e. ?172.86 crore, had been released to 90 cities, including 7 cities of the Northeast and the remaining had been disbursed to 43 cities.
The activities that the money would be spent would include
- Installing and commissioning continuous ambient air quality monitoring systems
- Creating green buffer zone along the roads
- Mechanical street sweepers
- Mobile enforcement units
- Water sprinklers
- Public awareness and capacity-building activities.
At the State-level, the NCAP envisages
- A steering committee headed by the Chief Secretary
- A monitoring committee headed by principal secretary (environment)
- An implementation committee headed by either district magistrate or commissioner of the municipal corporation.