1. Opposition parties flay EC’s remote voting plan
Questions raised: The Election Commission has called an all-party meeting on January 16 for consultations.
It will discourage free and fair elections, parties say at parliamentary panel meeting; they question poll body’s logic that the new system for migrant workers will increase voting percentage
The Opposition parties on Monday grilled officials of the Election Commission on the proposal to introduce a remote voting facility for migrant workers, saying it will discourage free and fair elections.
At a meeting of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Law and Justice, headed by BJP MP Sushil Modi, the parties questioned the EC’s logic that the new system would increase voting percentage.
The meeting was called to discuss the “status of common electoral roll” for conducting elections, false declarations during the filing of nominations and establishing parity between the minimum age of voting and contesting elections to Parliament, State legislatures and local bodies.
However, according to sources, a significant part of the meeting was spent to discuss the move to introduce multi-constituency remote electronic machines for migrant workers. The EC has called an all-party meeting on January 16 for consultations.
Members of the Congress, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), the Trinamool Congress and the Shiv Sena expressed serious concerns about the system.
A DMK member said the proposed voting mechanism would go against the Basic Structure of the Constitution and discourage free and fair elections. “Nominees from political parties posted at every booth act as watchdogs guarding against any violations. Allowing [remote] polls will deny opportunity to regional parties to send in their nominees to booths,” a member said.
A Congress member said the new system would be detrimental, especially for the smaller parties who might not be able to muster personnel beyond their respective States.
“The EC’s justification for bringing the system is flawed. They claim that it will increase voting percentage; now South Mumbai Lok Sabha seat traditionally reports lowest voting percentage, how many migrants really live there?” a member said.
The parties also expressed reservations about the EC’s plan to bring in a common electoral roll for elections to the Lok Sabha, Assemblies and local bodies.
2. India, Britain sign and exchange letters for Young Professionals Scheme
The governments of India and the U.K. marked Pravasi Bharatiya Divas on January 9 by kicking off the Young Professionals Scheme, which will permit up to 3,000 of their degree-holding citizens aged between 18 and 30 to live and work in each other’s countries for a period of two years.
The launch of the scheme, which was conceived as part of an India-U.K. Migration and Mobility MoU signed in May 2021, was announced in November at the G20 summit in Bali, where U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak held talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Speaking at the High Commission of India in London, after a ceremony where letters were signed and exchanged between the two countries, High Commissioner Vikram Doraiswami, said the scheme, which will run for a period of three years initially, would hopefully be “up and running in March”.
However, he indicated there were still some processes that had to be completed before a March launch. “But that is conditional on everything actually been put in place. So we don’t want to make a formal announcement of a date until we are a 100% certain.”
Young Indians and Britons would be able to travel to each other’s countries either for work or study, or visit, for two years. The scheme allows for exchange visas for up to 3,000 individuals per year.
“It isn’t even necessary for you to have a job in hand, when you do this [ apply for the visa],” Mr. Doraiswami said. Successful candidates could look for a job, educational or cultural opportunity once they arrived in their host country. Or they could just visit.
Permanent Under Secretary at the U.K. Home Office Matthew Rycroft represented the U.K at the signing ceremony.
The signing of the agreement belies more complex issues around the movement of persons across borders. Part of the Migration and Mobility agreement of 2021 seeks to address the return of illegal migrants to their home countries.
A ‘free trade’ agreement between the two countries, which the governments were hoping to conclude before Deepavali last year, was complicated in part due to the U.K. Home Secretary Suella Braverman saying Indians were the largest group of visa-overstayers in Britain and the agreement with India had “not necessarily worked very well”.
The High Commission of India in London responded by saying it had acted on every case of visa overstaying referred to it by the U.K. authorities and that the government was awaiting “demonstrable progress” on some of the U.K.’s commitments under the agreement. The government is also seeking greater ease in the movement of skilled professionals and students from India to the U.K. as part of the trade discussions, the sixth round of which took place in New Delhi in December.
It will permit up to 3,000 of their degree-holding citizens to live and work in each other’s countries
3. Editorial-1: Time to count
The Census is too vital for the government to delay it any further
The importance of the decennially conducted Census cannot be overstated. As it tallies data on several features of the Indian population, such as basic demography, literacy levels, caste status, educational levels, spoken languages, religion, marital status, occupation, and migration status among others, the Census is vital to administrative functions and planning of welfare schemes. Census data are also critical as they are used as a frame to underpin other sample surveys that are representative of the whole population. The national Census is utilised by international agencies to project the world’s population as well. India has conducted the Census every 10 years since 1881; only 2021, a pandemic-affected year, was an exception as the exercise was postponed. With the deadline for freezing of boundaries further extended to June 30, 2023, the Census can effectively be conducted only some months after this event. Census enumeration is preceded by activities such as house-listing. Most States were in line to begin this in early 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. But the repeated postponement and, consequently, the undue delay in the Census’s commencement will severely affect the availability of vital information on population numbers at district and other lower levels.
The pandemic has been cited as a reason for the delay. The fact that lockdowns and physical distancing norms are now a thing of the past and infection levels in the country have remained relatively low ever since the last Omicron variant wave happened in early 2022 suggests that this is no longer a valid excuse. In fact, Census data should validate the various estimates on mortality based on ‘excess deaths’ analyses during the COVID-19 pandemic. Also, it is imperative that decadal changes in India’s demography related to urbanisation and migration of people across States are captured adequately. Welfare schemes such as the targeted Public Distribution System under the National Food Security Act depend on population estimates, and the government continues to rely on Census 2011, which is now clearly outdated. Inter-State disparities in population growth rates could also impinge upon debates on the prospective delimitation of electoral boundaries and apportioning of seats across States. Considering these and other imperatives for the smooth planning and implementation of administrative, welfare and statistical management for governance, the Union government must show alacrity in commencing the Census.
4. Editorial-2: Glimmer of hope
SC must provide a definitive directive on the rights of same-sex couples
In a welcome move, the Supreme Court has transferred to itself petitions pending in several High Courts seeking legal recognition of same-sex marriage. A Bench of Chief Justice D.Y. Chandrachud and Justices P.S. Narasimha and J.B. Pardiwala asked the Centre to file its reply to all the petitions on the issue by February 15 and has listed the case for directions on March 13. Petitioners are looking for an authoritative ruling legalising same-sex marriage, especially on the question of whether it will be brought within the ambit of the Special Marriage Act of 1954, which allows a civil marriage for couples who cannot marry under their personal law. After the transformational judgment in K.S. Puttaswamy (2017) upholding the right to privacy and Navtej Johar (2018) decriminalising homosexuality, the courts have shown the way to end uncertainty regarding the rights of the LGBTQIA+ community. Petitioners have argued that denying the community the same rights as heterosexual couples violates a clutch of fundamental rights on life and liberty including Articles 14, 19 and 21 of the Constitution and Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which India is a signatory. Article 16 says, “Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family”.
The apex court will first have to contend with the response from the Centre, which has said it is opposed to same-sex marriage, stating that judicial intervention will cause “complete havoc with the delicate balance of personal laws”. There are also other issues on which the LGBTQIA+ community, which already faces prejudice in society, will need clarity from the court. Under Sections 5, 6 and 7 of the Special Marriage Act, parties to the marriage have to give prior notice to the Marriage Officer of the district who has to publicise the notice and call for objections. In the past, many inter-caste and inter-faith marriages faced violent opposition from those acting in the name of honour or community. Though the Allahabad High Court ruled in 2021 that people marrying under the Special Marriage Act can choose not to publicise their union, saying that mandatorily publishing a notice of the intended marriage and calling for objections violates the right to privacy, the LGBTQIA+ community will look for a definitive directive on this from the Supreme Court. Awareness campaigns are also a must to sensitise society about the rights of all individuals. By legalising same-sex marriage, India can join the 30-odd countries which allow it, and lead from the front in Asia where only Taiwan has legalised it.
5.Editorial-3: Municipal corporations in India are gasping for funds
The own revenue of Indian municipal corporations was less than 1% of GDP, smaller than Brazil’s 7% and South Africa’s 6%
The combined budget of all the municipal corporations in India is much smaller than that of the Central and State governments, an RBI analysis of finances of urban local bodies concludes. The study titled “Report on municipal finances” reveals how municipal bodies are increasingly dependent on fund transfers from the State and the Centre, while their revenue earning capacity is limited. Their revenue raising powers are curtailed, the study shows. Limited funds aside, about 70% of it gets spent on salaries, pensions and administrative expenses with the rest left for capital expenditure. And above all, the municipal corporations don’t borrow much, leaving them gasping for funds.
Taxes earned by municipal corporations in India are grossly inadequate to meet their expenditure needs. In India, the own tax revenue of municipal corporations, comprising property tax, water tax, toll tax and other local taxes, formed 31-34% of the total revenue in the FY18-FY20 period. This share was low compared to many other countries and it also declined over time. The share of own revenue (both tax and non-tax) in the total revenue of urban local bodies in India has declined, while that of government transfers has increased as shown in chart 1.
Using budgetary data from 201 municipal corporations across India, the RBI report calculated their overall revenue receipts — consisting of own tax revenue, own non-tax revenue and transfers. In 2017-18 (actuals), it was estimated to be 0.61% of the GDP and according to budget estimates of 2019-20, it increased slightly to 0.72% of the GDP. This was much smaller than Brazil’s 7% and South Africa’s 6%.
Large variations can be observed if the municipal corporations’ own tax revenue is sliced State-wise. The own tax revenue of municipal corporations as a share of the State’s GDP in 2017-18 crossed the 1% mark in Delhi, Gujarat, Chandigarh, Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh, while it was 0.1% or less in Karnataka, Goa, Assam and Sikkim.
Chart 2 plots these State-wise variations.
Another major issue with the municipal corporations’ revenue raising capabilities was their dependence on property taxes. In 2017-18, the property taxes formed over 40% of the municipal corporations’ own tax revenue. Despite such dominance, property tax collection in India was much lower compared to OECD countries due to undervaluation, and poor administration, the report argues.
A report published in the Chennai edition of this paper on Monday further highlights the problems plaguing property tax collection. Of the 13.27 lakh assessees in Chennai, only 6.94 lakh paid the property tax, while 6.33 lakh were yet to pay. Shortage of tax collectors has further impacted the revenues.
Chart 3 shows property tax collected in ₹ crore in FY18, FY19 and FY20 across major cities. The graph shows that most of the major cities have managed to increase their property taxes in the period, though increasing urbanisation rate and rising population density may have played a role.
Chart 4 shows the percentage of total expenditure of municipal corporations in India in 2017-18. Over 70% was spent on revenue expenditures such as salaries/wages/bonus (25%), operational and maintenance charges (16.2%), pensions (7.4%), etc., while less than 30% was capital expenditure.
The corporations are mostly dependent on transfers with their revenue raising potential being limited. Property taxes are not efficiently collected. The generated funds are mostly spent on revenue expenditure, leaving a much smaller pie for capacity building.