The Finance Bill 2017 amends Section 132 of the Income Tax act, specifically the sections about searches by the Income Tax department. It tweaks the law regarding searches slightly, but in manner that greatly affects all Indians and is due to be discussed in Lok Sabha after March 9.
Meghnad S, who says he's the Resident Policy Nerd at Office of BJD MP Tathagata Satpathy, tweeted about the law on February 6:
INCOME TAX! THIS IS A RAID! HAND OVER THIS PROPERTY!Owner: Wait what!? You can't do that!IT: sure we can! New law, bitch!*Does a jig* pic.twitter.com/bQrOlRVV6K— Meghnad (@Memeghnad) February 6, 2017
Owner: But why you do dees?IT: We have "reason to believe".Owner: what reason?IT: we don't have to tell you why! LOL.New law! pic.twitter.com/8LndTxTT7e— Meghnad (@Memeghnad) February 6, 2017
Owner: Outrageous! Reason to believe? I'm going to court. They'll show you!IT: We don't have to answer to the court either! Hehe. New law! pic.twitter.com/kDeGUJej1A— Meghnad (@Memeghnad) February 6, 2017
Owner: WTF. My grandpa bought this property in 1980. This is a 2017 law!IT: heh. We can attach any property from 1975 onward. New law lol! pic.twitter.com/zuHI6a4Upk— Meghnad (@Memeghnad) February 6, 2017
Owner: This is draconian..IT: reason to believe.Owner: you can't..IT: reason to believe.Owner: My house..IT: STFU! REASON TO BELIEVE.— Meghnad (@Memeghnad) February 6, 2017
Politician1: That opp leader is a pain in the arse. Sigh.P2: INCOME TAX! RAID HIM!IT: Sir but reason?P2: just say "reason to believe".— Meghnad (@Memeghnad) February 6, 2017
This is an amt to Sec 132 of IT Act. IT Act gives powers to officers to conduct raids if they have 'reasons to believe' there's wrongdoing. pic.twitter.com/HWaFKNrBR8— Meghnad (@Memeghnad) February 6, 2017
Some on Twitter pointed out to him that it might not be as draconian as it sounds. But since then many have pointed out that the law can be exactly as terrible as it sounds.
So what is wrong with the amendment?
An NDTV report pointed out that given the amendment takes effect retrospectively (with effect from the date of the passage of the original laws in April 1962 and October 1975) it actually contradicts Finance Minister Arun Jaitley's promise that he would not change tax laws so that people would be liable to pay taxes on past transactions.
A Telegraph article pointed out that various judgements in the past had said that the argument that search operations conducted by Income Tax authorities could be considered an invasion of the privacy of people. One of the judgements cited while saying that the 'reasons to believe' that could lead to Income Tax raids need to be substantial, also refused to define what exactly could be cited as substantial evidence.
The Telegraph article pointed out that the law undermines past courts' judgements and prevents individuals from challenging search and seizure operations by demanding information on why they are being raided.
And as Pratap Bhanu Mehta pointed out in his editorial in the Indian Express on Thursday:
"Distinguishing between a malafide and bonafide raid is not easy in any case. But think of what this amendment signals. Contrary to all promises, the powers of tax authorities are being made even more arbitrary. It also confirms what many suspected, that the pressure on government to now use income tax to scrape out non-existent windfall gains from demonetisation is immense. But there is little ambiguity that in the name of holding citizens accountable, we are opening the door to legalised authoritarianism."
There haven't been any explanations forthcoming on this from the government, apart from the fact that it will avoid ambiguity in the future. But if it gives tax authorities freedom to carry out raids without any accountability, it definitely won't be a laughing matter for those at the receiving end.