Parliament Monsoon Session: Centre, Oppn trade fire on PM CARES Fund; RS passes bill to punish attacks on health workers

In the Lok Sabha, Opposition MPs of the Congress, DMK, TMC, and others opposed the PM CARES Fund, alleging that it lacked transparency

FP Politics September 19, 2020 23:45:15 IST
Parliament Monsoon Session: Centre, Oppn trade fire on PM CARES Fund; RS passes bill to punish attacks on health workers

Representational image. PTI

On the sixth day of the Monsoon Session of Parliament on Saturday, the Lok Sabha passed the Taxation Amendment Bill after a detailed debate in which allegations of corruption flew across Opposition and Treasury benches.

The Lower House also passed the Companies (Amendment) Bill, 2020, in an extended session.

The Taxation and Other Laws (Relaxation and Amendment of Certain Provisions) Bill, 2020, passed by the Lok Sabha includes extending deadlines for filing returns and for linking PAN and Aadhaar as well as allows for donations made to the PM CARES Fund to claim 100 percent deduction in taxable income.

The Bill will replace the ordinance promulgated by the Centre in March.

Meanwhile, the Rajya Sabha passed two bills — the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code Bill, and the Epidemic Diseases (Amendment) Bill.

Additionally, MoS Labour and Employment, Santosh Kumar Gangwar, introduced three bills in the Lok Sabha — The Occupational Safety, Health And Working Conditions Code, 2020, The Industrial Relations Code, 2020, and The Code On Social Security, 2020.

PM CARES fund lacks transparency, says Opposition

In the Lok Sabha, Opposition MPs of the Congress, DMK, TMC, and others opposed the Prime Minister's Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations (PM CARES) Fund, alleging that it lacked transparency.

This charge was rejected by Union Minister Anurag Thakur, who hit back at the main Opposition party and alleged that government departments had given donations to trusts run by the Gandhi family during the UPA's tenure.

They were participating in a debate on the Taxation and Other Laws (Relaxation and Amendment of Certain Provisions) Bill, 2020. The Bill seeks to bring in various compliance relief measures for taxpayers, including extending time limits for filing returns, in the wake of the coronavirus crisis.

The Bill also includes tax benefits for donations to the PM CARES Fund. The Bill amends the provisions of the Income Tax Act to provide the same tax treatment to PM CARES Fund as available to the Prime Minister's National Relief Fund (PM-NRF).

"The donation made to the PM CARES Fund shall be eligible for 100 percent deduction under Section 80G of the IT Act. Further, the limit on deduction of 10 percent of gross income shall also not be applicable for donation made to PM CARES Fund," an official statement had said.

The Bill, introduced in the Lok Sabha on Friday, also proposes to extend the faceless assessment scheme to at least eight processes in Income Tax law. It proposed faceless assessment of income escaping assessment, rectification, amendments and issuance of notice or intimation.

Initiating the debate on the Bill in the Lower House, RSP's NK Premachandran said, "I can't understand the logic to have a separate fund. What is the difference between the Prime Minister's National Relief Fund and the PM CARES Fund."

He alleged the PM CARES Fund "lacks transparency as it is not audited by Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG)". He said, "The question of transparency and accountability is the main issue I want to highlight."

Congress' Manickam Tagore also raised the issue of transparency in the fund. He questioned whether a chief minister of any state can say that he or she will not disclose the spending under the Chief Minister's Relief Fund. "But PM CARES Fund is outside the ambit of the Parliament and the CAG," he added.

"What was the need of a private trust with the Council of Ministers as trustees? It indicates a conflict of interest," Tagore said.

He alleged that just like demonetisation, the Narendra Modi government is providing another opportunity "to convert blackmoney into white".

Without naming anyone, he said the "AA battery" is running the Central Government which is why "most of the government contracts are going to some particular companies".

Echoing similar views, DMK MP Gautham Sigamani Pon alleged that the PM CARES Fund is "clearly a private trust".

TMC's Mahua Moitra slammed the Centre in the debate on the Bill and said that the government should "stop lying" about welfare measures it has taken.

Opposing the Bill, she said the PM CARES Fund is against public interest as it is not answerable to the Parliament even though it collects funds from the public. She said that 38 public sector companies contributed a total of Rs 2,100 crore to the fund.

"This is 70 percent of the total corpus," she said, adding it should therefore be answerable to the Parliament.

She also alleged that the fund got money from Chinese firms like TikTok and Huawei and asked whether the Centre will return the "tainted" donations from such "enemy" companies.

She also echoed the Opposition's question of whether there was a need for another fund.

"Prime Ministers will come and go, but the existence of a fund is not up for discussion? What is this need to name everything after one individual?" she said.

Backing the fund, BJD's Bhartuhari Mahtab expressed hope that the PM CARES Fund is not only created to tackle COVID-19 but also for different calamities.

"Such type of calamity relief funds are nothing new in our country. I doubt in any other country such a clamour has been made to target a philanthropic trust, the manner in which it is being done in the country," Mahtab said.

Meanwhile, Shiv Sena's Arvind Sawant said a similar tax relief should be extended to the fund created by the Maharashtra government.

Supporting the Bill, BJP MP Subhash Chandra Baheria said it proposes faceless assessment which is a big step in the interest of taxpayers.

Anurag Thakur, Nirmala Sitharaman target Congress in Lok Sabha debate

Intervening in the debate on the Taxation Amendment Bill, Thakur asserted that the PM CARES Fund has been brought with "absolute transparency".

The trustees of PM CARES Fund are the prime minister, the home minster, the finance minister and the defence minster. But in the case of Prime Minister's National Relief Fund (PMNRF), the Congress president was also a member, he said.

He asked the Congress members as to why was the Indian National Congress (INC) president a member of PM-NRF, alleging that the PMNRF was controlled by "a family".

Amid protests by Congress members, Thakur persisted with his attack on the party. He said PM-NRF was formed in 1948 but was not registered under relevant sections of prevailing laws. He also claimed that funds used to be transferred from PM-NRF to Rajiv Gandhi Foundation.

He pointed out that Congress had maintained that PM-NRF is a public charitable trust, so that there is no need for an audit by CAG.

He also alleged that they took money from Islamist preacher Zakir Naik in 2011 and returned it in 2014. He wondered why it took so long to return the donation. "Did you return money with interest or without interest?" he said.

Meanwhile, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman replied to arguments with a comparison of the PM CARES and PM-NRF funds.

The specifications of the PM CARES and PM-NRF funds are "similar", Sitharaman. She also emphasised that while the PM CARES fund is registered, the PM-NRF is not.

Many MPs raised concerns over the audit of the PM CARES, because it is outside the ambit of the CAG. In reply, Sitharaman said that both the funds are being audited by a firm, SARC and Associates.

She said that neither funds are under the purview of the RTI Act. She added that that objectives of both the funds were also "similar".

The finance minister also slammed the Opposition over Congress president Sonia Gandhi's inclusion on the board of trustees of the PM-NRF.

In reply to the Opposition's arguments on the Companies Amendment Bill, Sitharaman said, "Bill will help companies to do their business easily. It will also amend companies law to decriminalise various offences."

Farooq Abullah urges Centre to advocate talks with Pakistan

NC MP Farooq Abdullah, speaking in Parliament for the first time since his release from detention after the abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir, advocated talks with Pakistan, saying if India can talk to China to defuse their border row, it can also speak to its other neighbour to deal with the situation at the Union Territory's borders.

"Border skirmishes have been rising and people are dying... A way has to be found to deal with this. Except for talks... As you are talking to China to attempt that it withdraws (from Ladakh border), we should also talk to our (other) neighbour to find a way to get out of this situation," he said in Lok Sabha during the Zero Hour amid protests from Treasury Benches.

The Srinagar MP also said that Jammu and Kashmir has not seen any progress, adding that authorities blocking 4G facilities in the Union Territory goes against the interest of students and traders.

He also conveyed his gratitude to parliamentarians for speaking for him when he was under detention.

Ongoing Parliament session likely to be curtailed

The ongoing Monsoon Session of Parliament is likely to be curtailed and may end by the middle of next week in view of the threat of the COVID-19 spread among parliamentarians, PTI reported.

At a meeting of the business advisory committee of Lok Sabha, which has floor leaders of all parties besides the government representatives and is chaired by the Speaker, most political parties favoured curtailment of the session, which started on 14 September and was scheduled to conclude on 1 October.

A final decision will be taken by the Cabinet Committee on Parliamentary Affairs.

Centre faces heat over migrant crisis in Rajya Sabha

In the Upper House of the Parliament, Opposition parties criticised the Central Government, accusing it of crossing constitutional bars, interfering in the affairs of states, failing to control private hospitals during the coronavirus crisis, and being unable to protect the migrant labourers and the poor.

The MPs were participating in a debate on The Epidemic Diseases (Amendment) Bill, 2020.

Derek O'Brien of the Trinamool Congress accused the Centre of interfering in the functioning of states through the Bill.

The Bill, which was subsequently passed, provides for jail terms upto five years and hefty fines for attack on healthcare workers fighting the coronavirus outbreak or during any situation akin to the current pandemic.

"Remember states of West Bengal, Punjab, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan rejected you. Chief Ministers there have been elected to run the states. You cannot cross constitutional bars. There are sinister provisions in the Bill. The States must be authorised to take decisions," he said.

Participating in the debate, K Keshava Rao of the TRS asserted the Centre should consult states before interfering into their affairs.

The Samajwadi Party and DMK also echoed critical statements in the debate.

Rajya Sabha passes Insolvency Amendment Bill

Meanwhile, the Rajya Sabha passed amendments to the insolvency law, allowing for suspension of fresh insolvency proceedings for at least six months starting 25 March amid the coronavirus pandemic, with Sitharaman saying a decision on extending the suspension of relevant provisions will be taken next week.

In the wake of the COVID-19 situation, the government had decided to suspend the provisions starting from 25 March for six months by promulgating an ordinance in June.

Default on repayments from 25 March, the day when the nationwide lockdown began to curb coronavirus infections, would not be considered for initiating insolvency proceedings for at least six months.

The six-month period is ending next week.

The Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code (Second Amendment) Bill, 2020, seeks to replace the ordinance issued in June, was passed by a voice vote after a brief discussion.

Replying to the debate, Finance and Corporate Affairs Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said the suspension of provisions will end next week.

"At the moment, amendment to the Code gives me a provision to only extend till one year. If at all, because it is coming to an end on 25 September this year, 24 September itself we have to make an announcement about what is going to happen. But even if I do, it means by March it should be ending...," the minister said.

The minister also clarified that insolvency proceedings against corporates defaulting on loans prior to 25 March will continue and the amendment will not stall those cases.

A majority of Opposition parties supported the Bill and also urged the government to provide interest waiver on loans to farmers and poor people suffering due to the COVID-19 crisis.

During the debate on the Bill, many members expressed fears over its possible misuse by corporates even as they hoped that it will help in reviving the economy.

On members' queries regarding liability of personal guarantors in the IBC, Sitharaman said the corporate debtor often has guarantors.

With inputs from agencies

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