New Delhi, March 30, 2017

In a setback to the government, as many as five amendments moved by the opposition to the Finance Bill were adopted by the Rajya Sabha on Wednesday even as the House witnessed sharp exchanges between finance minister Arun Jaitley and Congress member P Chidambaram over the move to make Aadhaar compulsory.

Three of the amendments were moved by Congress MP Digvijaya Singh and two by Sitaram Yechury of CPI(M). 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. In the 245-member House, BJP has 56 members while NDA jointly has 74 members.

Replying to the debate, Jaitley strongly defended the government's move to make Aadhaar compulsory for access to various benefits, saying it was necessary to check frauds, including tax evasion.

He said Aadhaar 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 questions by Congress members as to why Aadhaar was being made mandatory, he sought to know why this technology should not be utilised since it was created for public benefit.

Chidamabaram asked whether the government could give a guarantee that Aadhaar details would not be leaked through hacking. To this, the finance minister said while hacking could not be ruled out, firewalls should be made stronger. "If the firewalls can be broken and 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.

On leak of Aadhaar details of cricketer M S Dhoni, Jaitley said it was the result of an "immature" act by somebody 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 for 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 FM said I-T 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 whistle-blower 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.

[The Times of India]