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Delhi High Court Suspends CGPDTM Notice Fixing the IP Applications Cut-off Date

The Hon’ble Delhi High Court has suspended the operation of a public notice issued by the Controller General of Patents, Designs and Trademarks (CGPDTM) that had fixed the cut-off date (18.05.2020) for completion of various acts/proceedings, filings, payment of fees and other deadlines that had fallen due during this lockdown. The public notice was found to be contrary to the Supreme Court order which extended the period of limitation applicable to all proceedings before all Courts and Tribunals with effect from 15th March 2020 till further orders.

 

Keeping in mind the extraordinary situation prevailing in the Country attributable to the lockdown announced by the Government, causing difficulties to litigants/advocates in filing their petitions/suits/applications/appeals/or other proceedings, etc. within the limitation period, the Hon’ble Supreme Court had Suo Motu registered a case numbered as Suo Motu Writ Petition (Civil) Nos. 3/2020 titled Re: Cognisance for Extension of Limitation.  

Invoking its plenary power conferred by the Constitution under Articles 141 & 142, the Bench comprising of Hon’ble Chief Justice S.A. Bobde, Hon’ble Justice L. Nageswara Rao & Hon’ble Justice Surya Kant passed the Order dated 23rd March 2020 extending the period of limitation applicable to all proceedings before all Courts and Tribunals governed by general law or special laws whether condonable or not with effect from 15th March 2020 till further orders.

The CGPDTM had issued a Public Notice dated 4th May 2020 informing applicants/registrants and/or its agents/advocates that the due-dates with respect to timelines/periods prescribed under the IP Acts and Rules, falling due during the lockdown, to complete various acts/proceedings, filing of any reply/document, payment of fees, etc. in the matter of any Intellectual Property (IP) applications, shall be 18th May 2020, since the lockdown period from 25th March 2020 to 3rd May 2020 was further extended by two weeks, i.e., till 17th May 2020.

Aggrieved by this public notice, a writ petition (W.P.(C) No.3059/2020) was filed before the Delhi High Court on 06.05.2020 by the Intellectual Property Attorneys Association (IPAA) challenging the said notice. The petitioners submitted that the public notice issued by the CGPDTM is a blatant disregard to the order of Hon’ble Supreme Court dated 23rd March 2020, and specifically conferred the following arguments:  

  1. The order of extension of limitation is applicable to all proceedings irrespective of whether it was governed by general laws or special laws and would be in force with effect from 15th March 2020, as opposed to 25th March 2020 as mentioned in the public notice.
  1. The said extension of limitation shall be in effect until further orders. Hence, the cut-off due-date of 18th May 2020, fixed by the CGPDTM in the public notice, for the completion of various acts/proceedings, filings, payment of fees, etc. in the matters of any IP applications, is also contrary to the Supreme Court order. 
  1. The said due date of 18th May 2020 would also pose difficulties to litigants/advocates to obtain necessary documents/files and file them as per the prescribed procedures, since the lockdown would only be lifted on 17th May 2020.

The Hon’ble Delhi High Court, taking into consideration the Supreme Court Order dated 23.03.2020 and the arguments of the petitioners, passed an Order dated 11th May 2020, holding that no Court, Tribunal, or Authority can act contrary to the order of the Supreme Court. Further, as per Article 144 of the Constitution, all authorities whether civil or judicial, located in the territory of India are required to act in aid of the orders passed by the Supreme Court. The Court also agreed that the period of limitation would stand effective from 15th March 2020 and not from 25th March 2020 as provided in the public notice. 

The Hon’ble Delhi High Court hence rightly held that order of Hon’ble Supreme Court was binding on the CGPDTM and disposed of the petition by suspending the operation of the public notice dated 4th May 2020.

The Hon’ble Delhi High Court has suspended the operation of a public notice issued by the Controller General of Patents, Designs and Trademarks (CGPDTM) that had fixed the cut-off date (18.05.2020) for completion of various acts/proceedings, filings, payment of fees and other deadlines that had fallen due during this lockdown. The public notice was found to be contrary to the Supreme Court order which extended the period of limitation applicable to all proceedings before all Courts and Tribunals with effect from 15th March 2020 till further orders.

Image Credits: Photo by samer daboul from Pexels

The Hon’ble Delhi High Court, taking into consideration the Supreme Court Order dated 23.03.2020 and the arguments of the petitioners, passed an Order dated 11th May 2020, holding that no Court, Tribunal or Authority can act contrary to the order of the Supreme Court. Further, as per Article 144 of the Constitution, all authorities whether civil or judicial, located in the territory of India are required to act in aid of the orders passed by the Supreme Court. The Court also agreed that the period of limitation would stand effective from 15th March 2020 and not from 25th March 2020 as provided in the public notice. 

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Supreme Court lifts the RBI notification prohibiting banking services to Virtual Currency Business: Analysis

After providing the reference of more than 50 cases about legality of virtual currency from across the world in its 180-page-long judgement, the Supreme Court, on March 4th, 2020 lifted the RBI notification prohibiting banking services to Virtual Currency (VC) business.

‘Cryptocurrency’ means “a math-based, decentralised convertible Virtual Currency Protected by cryptography by relying on public and private keys to transfer value from one person to another and signed cryptographically each time it is transferred.”[1]

“‘Virtual currency (VC)’ as the name suggests is a digital representation of value that can be traded digitally and functioning as (1) a medium of exchange; and/or (2) a unit of account; and/or (3) a store of value, but not having a legal tender status.” [2]

On a global level, regulatory responses to cryptocurrency have ranged from a complete clamp down in some jurisdictions to a comparatively ‘light-touch regulatory approach.

Though cryptocurrency may not currently pose systemic risks, its increasing popularity leading to price bubbles raises serious concerns for consumer and investor protection and market integrity. The cryptocurrency eco-system may affect the existing payment and settlement system which could, in turn, influence the transmission of monetary policy.[3]

Brief facts:

It was in 2013, for the first time, RBI had noted and discussed the risks of the development of technology and VCs in its Financial Stability Report[4]. In the report, RBI had mentioned VCs as unregulated money and that regulators were studying the impact of the same.  A press release was thereafter issued by RBI on the potential impact and risks associated with VCs. Later that year newspapers reported about the first-ever raid in India by enforcement authorities on two Bitcoin firms.

On 01-02-2017, RBI again issued a Press Release[5] cautioning users, vendors and holders of VCs. Closely on the heels of the Press Release, the Ministry of Finance constituted an Interdisciplinary committee and the committee gave its report on 25-07-2017. The committee recommended issuing warnings to the general public that the Government does not support cryptocurrencies and those offering to buy or sell these currencies must stop such activities. However, it was clarified that there was no restriction on the use of blockchain technology.

RBI issued a “Statement on Developmental and Regulatory Policies[6]” followed by a circular[7] dated April 6, 2018,  directing the entities regulated by it (i) not to deal in virtual currencies nor to provide services for facilitating any person or entity in dealing with or settling virtual currencies and (ii) to exit the relationship with such persons or entities, if they were already providing such services to them. It appears that at around the same time (April 2018), the Inter-Ministerial Committee submitted its initial report, (or a precursor to the report) along with a draft bill known as ‘Banning of Cryptocurrency and Regulation of Official Digital Currency Bill, 2019’.[8]

Challenging the said Statement and Circular and seeking a direction to the RBI not to restrict or restrain banks and financial institutions regulated by RBI from providing access to banking services to those engaged in transactions in crypto assets, these writ petitions were filed. The petitioner in the first writ petition is a specialized industry body known as the ‘Internet and Mobile Association of India’ which represents the interests of the online and digital services industry. The petitioners in the second writ petition comprise a few companies which run online crypto assets exchange platforms, the shareholders/founders of these companies, and a few individual crypto-assets traders.

After detailed analysis, the Hon’ble Supreme Court bench comprising of Hon’ble Justices R.F. Nariman, Aniruddha Bose, and V. Ramasubramanian set aside the impugned circular issued by RBI on “directing  the entities regulated by RBI (i) not to deal in virtual currencies nor to provide services for facilitating any person or entity in dealing with or settling virtual currencies and (ii) to exit the relationship with such persons or entities, if they were already providing such services to them.” [9]

There were two main issues raised before the Hon’ble Supreme Court.

 

  1. Whether RBI had the power to prohibit the activities of trading in VCs?

 

No power at all:

One of the major contention raised by the  Petitioners is that RBI has no power to prohibit VC as it is neither a  legal tender nor comes within the credit system of the country so as to enable RBI to act upon the power conferred in it. Also, that, it does not have any characteristics of money for RBI to have the power to regulate the same.  

RBI in its counter-argument agreed to the fact that VC does not satisfy with being acknowledged as currency, however, stated that VCs do not have any formal or structured mechanism for handling consumer disputes/ grievances. Further, due to its anonymity/pseudo-anonymity characteristic, it is capable of being used for illegal activities. Increased use of VCs would eventually erode the monetary stability of the Indian currency and the credit system. Therefore, RBI has every power to regulate and control the activities of trading in VCs.

With regard to the above contentions and arguments, the Supreme Court after analyzing opinions and definitions of various legislations observed that though VCs are not recognized as legal tender, they are capable of performing some or most of the functions of real currency. The statutory obligation that RBI has, as a central bank, is  (i) to operate the currency and credit system, (ii) to regulate the financial system, and (iii) to ensure the payment system of the country to be on track, would compel them naturally to address all issues that are perceived as potential risks to the monetary, currency, payment, credit and financial systems of the country. Therefore, anything that may pose a threat to or have an impact on the financial system of the country can be regulated or prohibited by RBI, despite the said activity not forming part of the credit system or payment system. and concluded that the users and traders of virtual currencies carry on an activity that falls squarely within the purview of the RBI.

If at all power, only to regulate:

Another contention made by the Petitioners was that, if at all RBI is conferred with any power it is only to regulate, but not to prohibit.  It was contended by petitioners that the power to prohibit something as res extra commercium was always a legislative policy and that therefore the same could not be done through executive fiat.  In support of its contention, the petitioners referred to the definition of the expression “payment system” under the Payment and Settlement Act and contented that VC Exchanges do not operate any payment system and that since the power to issue directions under Section 18 of the Payment and settlement systems Act was only to regulate payment systems, the invocation of the said power to something that did not fall within the purview of payment system was arbitrary.

RBI in its counter-argument stated that the impugned decision of RBI was legislative in character and was in the realm of an economic policy decision taken by an expert body warranting a hands-off approach from the Court.  

In this regard, the Supreme Court observed that the power of RBI was not merely curative but also preventive. Further, in any case, the projection of the impugned decisions of RBI as a total prohibition of activity altogether, might not be correct. The impugned Circular did not impose a prohibition on the use of or the trading in VCs. It merely directed the entities regulated by RBI not to provide banking services to those engaged in the trading or facilitating the trading in VCs. The fact that the functioning of VC Exchanges automatically got paralyzed or crippled because of the impugned Circular, was no ground to hold that it tantamounted to total prohibition.

Supreme court in this issue held that in the overall scheme of the Payment and Settlement Systems Act, 2007, it was impossible to say that RBI did not have the power to frame policies and issue directions to banks who are system participants, with respect to transactions that would fall under the category of payment obligation or payment instruction, if not a payment system. Hence, the argument revolving around Section 18 failed.

  1. If RBI has the power to deal with carrying out activities related to VCs, whether this impugned circular was a proper exercise of that power?

The second issue raised was regarding the mode of exercise of power and the court-tested its appropriateness and validity based on certain well-established parameters.

No application of mind

One of the major contentions by the petitioner was that RBI had not adequately applied its mind. However, SC was of the view that RBI had been brooding over the issue for almost five years without taking any extreme step. RBI had even issued a press release titled “RBI cautions users of Virtual Currencies against Risks”. Therefore, RBI could hardly be held guilty of non-application of mind.

Malice in law

Another contention made by petitioners was that the impugned Circular was a colorable exercise of power and tainted by malice in law, in as much as it sought to achieve an object completely different from the one for which the power was entrusted.

However, SC observed that in order to constitute colorable exercise of power, the act must have been done in bad faith and the power must have been exercised not with the object of protecting the regulated entities or the public in general, but with the object of hitting those who form the target. To constitute malice in law, the act must have been done wrongfully and wilfully without reasonable or probable cause which is not the case here. Hence, SC rejected the argument.

Violative of Article 19 and proportionality

The next ground of issue raised before the Supreme Court was on the basis of Article 19(1)(g) of the Constitution. It was contended by the Petitioners that since access to banking was the equivalent of the supply of oxygen in any modern economy, the denial of such access to those who carry on a trade which was not prohibited by law, was not a reasonable restriction, rather it was extremely disproportionate. It was further contended that the right to access the banking system was actually integral to the right to carry on any trade or profession and therefore legislation, subordinate or otherwise whose effect or impact severely impairs the right to carry on a trade or business, not prohibited by law, would be violative of Article 19(1)(g).

RBI raised two fundamental objections in this regard. The first was that corporate bodies/entities that had come up with the challenge were not ‘citizens’ and hence, not entitled to maintain a challenge under Article 19(1)(g). Secondly, there was no fundamental right to purchase, sell, transact and/or invest in VCs and that therefore, the petitioners could not invoke Article 19(1)(g).

The SC, however, objected to the contentions of RBI for two reasons namely, (i) that at least some of the petitioners are not claiming any right to purchase, sell or transact in VCs, but claiming a right to provide a platform for facilitating an activity of trading in VCs between individuals/entities who want to buy and sell VCs) which is not yet prohibited by law and (ii) that in any case, the impugned Circular does not per se prohibit the purchase or sale of VCs.

SC observed that, despite the fact that the users and traders of VCs are also prevented by the impugned Circular from accessing the banking services, the circular has not paralyzed many of the other ways in which crypto-currencies can still find their way to or from the market. It was further noted by the apex court that if a central authority like RBI, on a conspectus of various factors perceive the trend as the growth of a parallel economy and severs the umbilical cord that virtual currency has with fiat currency, the same cannot be very lightly nullified as offending Article 19(1)(g).

On the question of proportionality, the petitioners relied upon the four-pronged test summed up in the opinion of the majority in Modern Dental College and Research Centre v. State of Madhya Pradesh. These four tests were (i) that the measure was designated for a proper purpose (ii) that the measures were rationally connected to the fulfillment of the purpose (iii) that there were no alternative less invasive measures and (iv) that there was a proper relation between the importance of achieving the aim and the importance of limiting the right.

SC observed that the impugned circular was issued with the aim of prohibiting the trade in VCs. The object of hitting at trading in VCs was to ensure (i) consumer protection (ii) prevention of violation of money laundering laws (iii) curbing the menace of financing of terrorism and (iv) safeguarding of the existing monetary/payment/credit system from being polluted. However, in the process, it has hit VC Exchanges and not the actual trading of VCs, consequently, the volume of transactions in VCs (perhaps through VCEs alone) is stated to have come down.

SC further observed that at the time when the impugned Circular was issued, RBI had not obviously addressed many of the issues flagged by the writ petitioners. SC held that RBI failed to pass the test of proportionality due to the following reasons:

  • Even though RBI states that it can adversely impact its regulated entities, consumers, and the economy, RBI has not so far found, in the past 5 years or more, the activities of VC exchanges to have actually impacted adversely, the way the entities regulated by RBI function. Before taking any pre-emptive action against VCs, the RBI is required to show some semblance of any damage suffered to it or regulated entities. Since they don’t have any substantial evidence to show damage, RBI failed in the test of proportionality.
  • Secondly, despite coming out with various circulars, statements against cryptocurrency, RBI has consistently taken the stand that it has not prohibited VCs in the country. Therefore, RBI’s position is still murky.
  • Thirdly, the Government of India is unable to take a call despite several committees coming up with several proposals including two bills. It is also worthwhile to mention that the draft bills also take opposite stands where one bill tries to ban cryptocurrency while the other bill tries to regulate them.

Order:

In light of answering the final issue, SC held that petitioners are entitled to succeed, and the impugned Circular dated 06-04-2018 is liable to be set aside on the ground of proportionality.

Conclusion:

It is only in the last leg that the apex court held against the respondent RBI and ordered to set aside the circular. The ruling was based on the reasons that- (i) RBI has failed to provide any empirical evidence to show that VCs have negatively impacted the banking sector or other entities regulated by the RBI; (ii) the inconsistencies in proposals made by Govt and; (iii) RBIs consistent position that they have not banned VC.

However, notably, this judgement lost the opportunity to answer crucial questions or take a definitive stand on cryptocurrency. The Court could take measures to legalize cryptocurrencies or direct the RBI to come up with more documentation and legal backing to ban the same.   

Even though this judgement held in favour of the cryptocurrency communities, we cannot conclude that that the apex court is for VC it in fact empowered RBI to regulate virtual currency clearly confirming the powers of RBI in this regard.

Till this judgement, RBI wasn’t very sure about whether it has the power to hit VC directly. With that dilemma, RBI issued this impugned (now banned) Circular by ring-fencing them.   This judgement now paves a way for RBI to take a decision on whether to completely ban VC or should it come up with alternate solution capable of dealing with virtual currencies for the stability of the financial system. Though the judgement set aside the RBI circular, it in fact empowered RBI to regulate and even ban VC’s in the future. You can now expect some fresh regulatory steps from RBI or from the government.   

This judgment lost the opportunity to answer crucial questions or take a definitive stand on cryptocurrency. The Court could take measures to legalize cryptocurrencies or direct the RBI to come up with more documentation and legal backing to ban the same.   

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Housing Apartheid In Urban Areas: A Constitutional Challenge

“Excellent brand new 2bhk fully furnished flat, cross ventilation, natural light, cosmopolitan society, no Muslims; with car-parking, on immediate sale, 5th floor. If interested, pls call___” read the controversial 99acres.com advertisement for a flat in Dadar (East), Mumbai.[1] This generated a furore and resulted in the removal of the advertisement from the website and a statement from them claiming that they were opposed to any kind of discriminatory practice.[2]

 

 

Jayanagar is one of the largest residential areas in Bangalore. The population is mostly dominated by upper-class Hindus and is extremely notorious in its treatment towards Muslims and sometimes to Christians too, with respect to letting outhouses.[3] They mask their prejudice mostly in the garb of not letting houses out to non-vegetarians (which is problematic on its own). The tolerance level is higher for Hindu non-vegetarians (preferably non-SC/ST), then Christians, then SC/STs and then Muslims.

These incidents and many more in addition to them provide a propitious opportunity to discuss housing apartheid, which is not peculiar to a particular area or city. The examples stated above display instances of housing apartheid in most cosmopolitan cities in the country. They illustrate discrimination and prejudice, either overtly or covertly, and, in my opinion, are in direct violation of Article 15 of the Constitution of India[4].

The concept of housing apartheid is elucidated herein by first discussing the infamous Supreme Court case, Zoroastrian Co-operative Housing Society Limited v. District Registrar Co-operative Societies (Urban),[5] which allowed for setting up of segregated housing societies, and then proceed to evaluate the constitutional provisions in the context of right to housing, for Muslims in particular, and finally query into the feasibility of regulating the private sphere in this context.

 

The case

 

In the Zoroastrian Co-operative Housing Society Limited case,[6] members of the Parsee community established a housing society and limited membership to the co-operation, through a bye-law, only to persons belonging to that community. The Respondent applied to the society, seeking permission to demolish the building and use the space for construction of a commercial building. Permission was not granted as the bye-laws of the society did not allow for the use of the property for commercial purposes. Subsequently, when he applied for permission to construct residential flats to be sold to Parsees, he was permitted to go ahead. When he entered into negotiations with a builders’ association for sale of property, he violated the restriction placed upon him with respect to not allowing membership of non-Parsees in the co-operative society. The matter reached the High Court of Gujarat when the society challenged such a violation. The High Court rejected the claim of the society and held that restricting membership would amount to a violation of the right to property and Article 300A. Subsequently, the society went on appeal to the Supreme Court of India, wherein the claim was upheld and the court held that the bye-law was not in contravention with Section 4 of the Gujarat Co-operative Societies Act which laid down that any bye-law which contravenes public policy would not be recognised. The court’s understanding of this provision was that public policy has to be located within the confines of the Act and not look for constitutional principles or provisions unless explicitly provided by the Act.  This judgement also held that a co-operative society does not come under the fold of a ‘state’ under Article 13 of the Constitution of India[7] and accordingly, a fundamental rights challenge cannot be held valid as they are attracted only when a state action contravenes these rights.

This is an extremely verticalist interpretation of the Constitution[8] and potentially bad in law. By taking this approach, the court has completely disregarded the obligation of non-state actors in not violating fundamental rights. For example, Article 17 of the Constitution[9] would be rendered a toothless provision if it is not enforceable against non-state actors. Another example that is closer to the topic in discussion is the case of Vishaka v. State of Rajasthan,[10] wherein, the Supreme Court issued guidelines and norms to be followed in order to prevent instances of sexual harassment against women at workplaces. Observance of these guidelines would not have been effective if state actors were the only bodies expected to do so. Horizontal application of fundamental rights, i.e., a rights challenge enforceable against both state and non-state actors, was etched out clearly in this case.

 

Right to housing

 

The Supreme Court has endorsed a segregationist view by allowing community based housing, despite religion being an explicitly mentioned ground for non-discrimination.[11] The Indian society has undergone the trauma of partition, and in this framework, it is important and would be a highly mature approach if consideration is given to what it means for a minority community to practice, profess and propagate their religion, without having the fear of being discriminated against, and the degree to which the right to dignity may enable an individual or a group of persons to enjoy the right to freedom of religion without the expectation and fear of either implicit or visible manifestations of hate and incitement to religious hatred.

The ease with which the Supreme Court allowed for such a discriminatory practice based on a specified ground to pass gives a huge leeway for other discriminatory practices based on non-specified grounds to be carried out, such as refusing housing on grounds such as HIV status, sexual orientation, disability, language etc.[12]

 

What can be done about it?

 

The Justice Sachar Committee Report (Report on Social, Economic and Educational Status of the Muslim Community of India), 2006 was submitted by the expert level group set by the Ministry of Minority Affairs.[13] It was recommended by this report that an Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) be set up to keep a check on discrimination against minorities. The Madhava Menon Committee was set up in order to examine and analyse the structure and functioning of the EOC. This committee proposed the draft EOC Bill in 2008.[14] The Union Cabinet on 20 February 2014 gave its nod to the setting up of this Commission.[15]

While this Commission seeks to make a paradigm shift in the way equality is understood in the traditional sense, it is also onerous on the Commission to not exclude the housing sector from its immediate scope. Several critics have opined that such an Act would pervade into the private sphere of the landlord with respect to the choices that he/she would want to make about who to let out the house to. However, with the horizontal application of fundamental rights, such a problem would not arise as a violation of Article 15 would be enforceable against a private party too.

In arguendo, if such an application of fundamental rights were not allowed then, such a restriction on the choice of the landlord should be considered as a reasonable restriction as a direct co-relation can be made to increasing ghettoization of certain communities due to the practice of housing apartheid.[16]

 

Conclusion

 

The Zoroastrian Co-operative Housing Society Limited case narrowed down the scope of constitutional interpretation. However, with the coming of the EOC, the right to housing has to be construed as a constitutional guarantee and only when this is done can the principle of minority protection, which is one of the foremost responsibilities of the Constitution, be said to have been achieved to an extent.

 

References:

[1] Saurabh Gupta, Mumbai: No Muslims, said online ad for a flat, NDTV, 8 November 2013, available at: http://www.ndtv.com/article/cities/mumbai-no-muslims-said-online-ad-for-a-flat-443130 (Last visited on 18 March 2014).

[2] Mumbai property broker posts online ad, says no to Muslims, IBN Live, 7 November 2013, available at: http://ibnlive.in.com/news/mumbai-property-broker-posts-online-ad-says-no-to-muslims/432717-3-237.html (Last visited on 18 March 2014).

[3] Zainab Bawa, The Shame of a Name, Kafila, 20 March 2009, available at: http://kafila.org/2009/03/20/the-shame-of-a-name/ (Last visited on 18 March 2014).

[4] Prohibition of discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth

(1) The State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them

(2) No citizen shall, on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them, be subject to any disability, liability, restriction or condition with regard to

(a) access to shops, public restaurants, hotels and palaces of public entertainment; or

(b) the use of wells, tanks, bathing ghats, roads and places of public resort maintained wholly or partly out of State funds or dedicated to the use of the general public

(3) Nothing in this article shall prevent the State from making any special provision for women and children

(4) Nothing in this article or in clause ( 2 ) of Article 29 shall prevent the State from making any special provision for the advancement of any socially and educationally backward classes of citizens or for the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes

[5] AIR 2005 SC 2306.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Laws inconsistent with or in derogation of the fundamental rights:

(1) All laws in force in the territory of India immediately before the commencement of this Constitution, in so far as they are inconsistent with the provisions of this Part, shall, to the extent of such inconsistency, be void

(2) The State shall not make any law which takes away or abridges the rights conferred by this Part and any law made in contravention of this clause shall, to the extent of the contravention, be void

(3) In this article, unless the context otherwise requires law includes any Ordinance, order, bye law, rule, regulation, notification, custom or usages having in the territory of India the force of law; laws in force includes laws passed or made by Legislature or other competent authority in the territory of India before the commencement of this Constitution and not previously repealed, notwithstanding that any such law or any part thereof may not be then in operation either at all or in particular areas

(4) Nothing in this article shall apply to any amendment of this Constitution made under Article 368 Right of Equality

[8] Ashish Chugh, Fundamental Rights: Vertical or Horizontal?, (2005) 7 SCC (J) 9.

[9] Abolition of Untouchability: Untouchability is abolished and its practice in any form is forbidden. The enforcement of any disability arising out of Untouchability shall be an offence punishable in accordance with law

[10] AIR 1997 SC 3011.

[11] Under Article 15 of the Constitution of India.

[12] Tarunabh Khaitan, Reading Swaraj into Article 15: A New Deal for all the Minorities, 2 NUJS L. Rev. 419 (2009).

[13] Justice Sachar Committee Report on the Social, Economic and Educational Status of the Muslim Community of India, available at: http://www.minorityaffairs.gov.in/sites/upload_files/moma/files/pdfs/sachar_comm.pdf (Last visited on 18 March 2014).

[14] Madhav Menon Committee Report on Equal Opportunity Commission: What, Why and How?, available at:  http://usindiapolicy.org/documents/inclusion/EOC-Report-MMA.pdf (Last visited on 18 March 2014).

[15] Govt clears Panel to check Discrimination against Minority, The Indian Express, 20 February 2014, available at: communitieshttp://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-others/govt-clears-panel-to-check-discrimination-against-minority-communities/ (Last visited on 18 March 2014).

[16] Rafiq Dossani, The Future of Indian Muslims, Stanford Journal of Muslim Affairs, available at: http://iis-db.stanford.edu/pubs/23275/2011Spring_Avicenna_DossaniRafiq.pdf (Last visited on 18 March 2014).

 

 

Image Credits: Photo by <a href=”https://pixabay.com/users/PhotoMIX-Company-1546875/?utm_source=link-attribution&amp;utm_medium=referral&amp;utm_campaign=image&amp;utm_content=1407562″>Photo Mix</a> from <a href=”https://pixabay.com/?utm_source=link-attribution&amp;utm_medium=referral&amp;utm_campaign=image&amp;utm_content=1407562″>Pixabay</a>

The Zoroastrian Co-operative Housing Society Limited case narrowed down the scope of constitutional interpretation. However, with the coming of the EOC, the right to housing has to be construed as a constitutional guarantee and only when this is done can the principle of minority protection, which is one of the foremost responsibilities of the Constitution, be said to have been achieved to an extent.

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Impact of Supreme Court ruling pertaining to calculation of Provident Fund contribution on Allowances

The Hon’ble Supreme Court, in a recent judgement, answered the question of whether “special allowances” would fall within the expression “basic wages” for Provident Fund (PF) contribution in the affirmative. Interpreting the provisions of Employees Provident Funds and Miscellaneous Provisions Act, 1952 (“PF Act”) as a beneficial social welfare legislation, the Court affirmed the PF authorities’ factual conclusion that the allowances in question were essentially a part of the basic wage camouflaged as part of an allowance so as to avoid deduction and contribution to the provident fund account of the employees.

In essence, the Court reiterated the principle laid down in prior rulings that where the wage is universally, necessarily and ordinarily paid to all across the board, such emoluments are basic wages and employers had to expressly prove the special treatment in the special allowance for it to be kept out of the purview of calculations for PF purposes.

 

Background

The PF Act is a social security legislation enacted to help ensure that both employees and employers contributed towards a superannuation fund for the purpose of retirement benefits. Per the PF Act, all employees are required to contribute 12% of their basic wages, dearness allowance, cash value of any food concession and retaining allowance, if any with the employer contributing a matching 12%.

 

Basic Wages under Section 2(b)(ii) read with Section 6 of the PF Act is defined as “all emoluments which are earned by an employee while on duty or [on leave or on holidays with wages in either case] in accordance with the terms of employment and which are paid or payable in cash to him, but does not include:

  • the cash value of any food concession;
  • any dearness allowance (that is to say, all cash payments by whatever name called paid to an employee on account of a rise in the cost of living), house-rent allowance, overtime allowance, bonus, commission or any other similar allowances payable to the employee in respect of his employment or of work done in such employment;
  • any presents made by the employer.

The phrase “or any other similar allowance” has not specifically been defined in the PF Act or related schemes and has thus been a subject of litigation for several decades. Over the year, companies have been structuring the salary paid to employees to include various allowances, including special allowance. However, in all instances per the understanding of the PF Act, employers have only been paying contribution on Basic Salary, Dearness Allowance and Retaining Allowance or such equivalent components. The PF authorities have usually contended that ‘special allowances’ should be included for the purpose of calculation of contribution. The Hight Courts in India have taken varying views on the subject matter pertaining to contribution on allowances which had resulted in various appeals pending before the Supreme Court of India.

 

Supreme Court Decision on 28th February, 2019[1]

Various appeals[2] were preferred before the Supreme Court questioning whether various types of allowances such as special allowance, travel allowance, HRA, food allowance, etc. were to be construed as ‘basic wages’ for the purpose of calculation of contribution. The petitioners/employers had used the argument that the term ‘basic wages’ had certain specific exceptions and only such payment that had been earned by the employee in accordance with the terms of the employment was to be included for calculation of provident fund. The PF authorities, on the other hand used the principle of ‘universality’, stating that only incentive payments linked to output could be excluded from the calculation of provident fund.

 

The Hon’ble Supreme Court dismissed the appeals by the employers (except the appeal by the RPFC in the Vivekananda Vidyamandir case) and concluded, relying on the principle of universality, that all payments which were made to all employees or categories/classes of employees without discrimination and which are not specifically ‘variable’ in nature and fact or linked to certain incentive for greater output, would be construed as ‘basic wages’ and thus provident fund contribution was to be made on them. For an amount to be construed as variable in nature it would need to be demonstrated that the said amounts were payable on account of employees contributing beyond any normal work that would usually be expected of them; or that it would be payable to employees only if they availed certain opportunities.

 

The Supreme Court relied on some of its previous decisions for its conclusions, namely:

  • Whatever is payable by all concerns or earned by all permanent employees had to be included in basic wage for the purpose of deduction under Section 6 of the Act. It is only such allowances not payable by all concerns or may not be earned by all employees of the concern, that would stand excluded from deduction.[3]
  • Any variable earning which may vary from individual to individual according to their efficiency and diligence will stand excluded from the term ‘basic wages’.[4]
  • Where the wage is universally, necessarily and ordinarily paid to all across the board such emoluments are basic wages. Where the payment is available to be specially paid to those who avail of the opportunity is not basic wages. Conversely, any payment by way of a special incentive or work is not basic wages.[5]
  • That the Act was a piece of beneficial social welfare legislation and must be interpreted as such.”[6]

Impact of Supreme Court Decision

The principles laid out by the Supreme Court, although not new, are a welcome clarification on the position of allowances with respect to the calculation of provident fund contribution. From an employee perspective, employees’ net take home salary is also likely to be impacted by the decision.

 

However, the possibility of the decision having a retrospective effect might exasperate employers. This is on account of the fact that the judgement interprets an existing provision in the law and does not create any new provisions. The retrospective effect may require employer to cover the shortfall in contribution for the past year but additionally pay interest and damages as well.

 

It may also be noted that the Supreme Court decision to include allowances as part of basic wages has primary financial implications in connection to those domestic employees whose salary (on which PF contributions were being paid i.e. basic salary and dearness allowance) is less than INR 15,000 per month, as well as all international workers.

 

Employers are advised to revisit their policies and salary structures and start ensuring that all components of salary which are not discretionary or variable in nature are included for the purpose of PF contributions. Employers are also recommended to conduct audits to ascertain potential past non-compliances / shortfalls in contributions.

 

The matter is also currently sub judice with the management of Surya Roshni Ltd. having filed a review petition before the Supreme Court. It also remains to be seen if the EPFO would take a more lenient stance and allow employers to rectify past non-compliances without incurring the additional cost of interest and damages.

 

References:

[1] In connection with Civil Appeal no. 6221/2011, 3965-66/2013, 3969-70/2013, 3967-68/2013 and Transfer Case no. 19/2019 (arising out of TP(C) no. 1273/2013)

[2] Appeals considered jointly: (i) The Regional Provident Fund Commissioner (“RPFC”), West Bengal v/s Vivekananda Vidyamandir and Others (Kolkata High Court); (ii) Surya Roshni Ltd. vs. Employees Provident Fund and others (Madhya Pradesh High Court); (iii) U-Flex Ltd v/s EPF and another; (iv) Montage Enterprises Pvt. Ltd. v/s EPF and another (Madhya Pradesh High Court); (v) The Management of Saint-Gobain Glass India Limited v/s The RPFC, EPFO (Madras High Court).

[3] (i) Bridge and Roof Co. (India) Ltd. vs. Union of India, (1963) 3 SCR 978

[4] Muir Mills Co. Ltd., Kanpur Vs. Its Workmen, AIR 1960 SC 985

[5] Manipal Academy of Higher Education vs. Provident Fund Commissioner, (2008) 5 SCC 428

[6] The Daily Partap vs. The Regional Provident Fund Commissioner, Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Union Territory, Chandigarh, (1998) 8 SCC 90

Image Credits: Image by Shutterbug75 from Pixabay 

Employers are advised to revisit their policies and salary structures and start ensuring that all components of salary which are not discretionary or variable in nature are included for the purpose of PF contributions. Employers are also recommended to conduct audits to ascertain potential past non-compliances / shortfalls in contributions.

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