New Delhi: The government on Wednesday faced a major embarrassment in the Rajya Sabha as five amendments moved by the opposition to the Finance Bill 2017 were adopted before the House approved the measure.
Of the five opposition amendments, three were moved by the Congress member Digvijaya Singh and two by Sitaram Yechury of CPM.
The amendments were adopted with a significant margin, with the difference of votes ranging between 27 and 34 votes.
Trinamool Congress, which has 10 members, staged a walkout before the voting in the House where the ruling NDA is in a minority. In the 245-member House, the BJP has 56 members while the NDA jointly has 74 members.
Earlier, while replying to the debate, finance minister Arun Jaitley strongly defended the government's endeavor to make Aadhaar compulsory for access to various benefits, saying it was necessary to check frauds, including tax evasion.
While talking about Aadhaar, he admitted that it was a "great initiative" of the previous UPA government and said the NDA dispensation is expanding it.
"Earlier, some of us had doubts over Aadhaar...Some of your people (in Congress) also had doubts. Later, a presentation was made to the prime minister (Narendra Modi) where the doubts were cleared," Jaitley said.
Responding to repeated questions by the Congress members as to why Aadhaar was being made mandatory, he countered by asking why this technology should not be utilized since it was created for public benefit.
Congress leader P Chidamabaram asked whether the government could give guarantee that the Aadhaar details would not be leaked through hacking.
To this, the finance minister said while hacking could not be ruled out, the firewalls should be made stronger.
"If the firewalls can be broken and hacking can take place, the hacking can take place anywhere," he said, adding "Hacking does not take place because of Aadhaar" and referred to such an incident that took place at the Pentagon in the US.
When referred to the leakage of Aadhaar details of cricketer M.S. Dhoni, Jaitley said it was the result of an "immature" act by somebody in Ranchi against whom action has been taken.
For this reason, the technology cannot be discredited, he said.
One of the amendments moved by Digvijaya Singh related to a clause which gave powers to an assistant commissioner of Income Tax, rather than the Commissioner as prescribed earlier, to order searches. He said junior officers should not be given such powers since the income tax department is already notorious in terms of corruption.
Yechury's two amendments related to a clause linked to political funding.
The amended Finance Bill, which contains provisions for taxation, will now have to be considered again by the Lok Sabha, which can either accept or reject the amendments. If it rejects the amendments, the bill is deemed to have been passed by Parliament.
Jaitley also responded to questions over changes proposed to the income tax laws and asserted that any source who reports about any tax evasion, cannot be allowed to be identified.
The finance minister said IT authorities will conduct searches on the basis of "satisfaction note" which will only be disclosed to the courts and not the target of the investigation.
The provision is aimed at protecting the whistleblower which can be a trade union leader, a disgruntled employee or a dissatisfied partner.
His assurances, however, did not cut ice with the opposition which kept asking questions.
Former finance minister P. Chidambaram's suggestion that the "satisfaction note" should be shared without disclosing the source of information was rejected by Jaitley, who argued that sharing of the note could be used to track the source of information.
"Nobody can search without satisfactory note. Satisfactory note cannot be made available to the target of the investigation," Jaitley said.
He emphasized the changes in the Finance Bill are against "economic offenders" and for protection of whistle blowers.
Jaitley said that in order to introduce clean money into politics, the concept of electoral bonds has been proposed.
That will have some advantage to parties which are not in power, the finance minister said.
Countering Sibal's assertion that the proposal will benefit only the ruling party, Jaitley said the truth is to the contrary.
"The ruling party has to be large-hearted to really frame a scheme under which people would be without fear of consequences willing to give it to somebody who is not in power," Jaitley said.
He asked the opposition parties to have a positive approach towards this proposal and give suggestions.
One of our objects also has been not to restrict the constituency of donors, Jaitley said, adding that amendments to the FCRA have also been made to expand the list of donors.
On opposition's concern over merger of tribunals and appointments being made, Jaitley assured the House that all the judicial appointments will be made in consultation with the chief justice.
"If it is the judges, be rest assured that it will be in consultation with the chief justice. The judicial appointments will be made in consultation with the judiciary. The object is one related to governance," he said, adding this will be elaborated in while framing the rules.
Jaitley said the tribunals were being merged as "it is a harsh reality that many of regulators and tribunals do not have adequate work".
Citing an example, there are seven river water tribunals at present, whose tenures can be measured in decades.
Now, he said, there will be one river water tribunal which will act on a continuous basis and all the river water disputes will go there.
"In some tribunals, despite the efforts of chief justices, we are not able to get judges because alternate modes of earning are far more attractive," Jaitley said.
He outlined that the amendment being brought in says that the appointments will be made in consultation with the chief justice if you are judges, the executive appointments will be made in that manner.