Odisha Assembly passes bill allowing govt to spend ₹1.75 lakh crore this fiscal

live mint | April 01, 2021

While introducing the Bill, Finance Minister Niranjan Pujari said ₹85,000 crore has been allocated as administrative expenditure, ₹75,000 crore as programme expenditure, ₹3,050 crore as disaster response fund and ₹6,950 crore towards transfers from the state

The Assembly on Wednesday passed the Odisha Appropriation Bill, 2021 allowing the state government to spend ₹1.75 lakh crore from its consolidated fund during the financial year 2021-22.

While introducing the Bill, Finance Minister Niranjan Pujari said ₹85,000 crore has been allocated as administrative expenditure, ₹75,000 crore as programme expenditure, ₹3,050 crore as disaster response fund and ₹6,950 crore towards transfers from the state.

He said the passage of the Bill is essential as the funds will be spent for tackling the Covid-19 pandemic and appealed to all the members to pass the Bill.

Pujari said that around ₹8,000 crore has been allocated from off-budget resources like Odisha Mineral Bearing Areas Development Corporation (OMBADC), District Mineral Foundation (DMF) and state PSUs to supplement the budgetary outlay.

He had presented the annual Budget in the Assembly on February 22.

Speaker S N Patro announced that the budgetary demands for grants for 33 departments scheduled for discussion were passed through guillotine before the Appropriation Bill.

Both the opposition BJP and Congress members participated in the discussion before the passage of the Bill.

Goa Spent Bulk of Money for Mining-Affected People on COVID-19 Relief

Science The Wire | March 18, 2021

On April 28, 2018, Devidas Nayak of Molem, a mining-affected village in south Goa, wrote to the authorities managing the District Mineral Foundation (DMF) funds, explaining that his agricultural land has lost its water holding capacity because the drainage adjacent to the land is full of mining silt resulting in flash floods during the monsoon, making it easy for wild boar and bison to destroy the land.

He sought financial assistance to desilt the nalha, and help in infrastructure for irrigation of his fields. Nayak, who was formerly working with barge transportation (of minerals), had lost his job since the mining industry shut down and needed financial help in protecting his fields. Nearly three years later, on January 6, 2021, his letter was forwarded to Goa’s water resources department for scrutiny.

Nayak’s plea is among nearly 200 such letters since 2018 that are with bodies controlling Goa’s DMF funds. These letters are from individuals, panchayat members, doctors, legislators, and non-profits representing mining-affected villages, requesting financial assistance for basic needs such as drinking water, water for irrigation, restoration of agricultural land, desilting of agricultural land, education, providing transportation for children, and creating health infrastructure – fundamentals of a functioning village. Three years later, while some of these requests have been approved, most are pending or have been deferred indefinitely.

In June 2015, through an amendment in India’s central mining law – the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act 2015 – DMFs were introduced in all districts in the country that are affected by mining-related operations, including Goa’s two districts, north and south. These district mineral foundations were tasked with managing and utilising the funds for the interest and benefit of people and areas affected by mining.

DMF funds diverted for COVID-19

According to documents accessed by Mongabay-India, about Rs 202.5 crore was collected under DMF, and of that approximately Rs 42 crore has been spent thus far. However, of this, merely Rs 4 crore has been utilised directly for the mining-affected villages, while the rest of the Rs 38 crore has been diverted towards COVID-19 relief. In March 2020, when the pandemic struck, the central government came out with an order that said that up to 30% of the DMF funds can be diverted towards coronavirus relief work.

But the central government’s move had come under severe criticism from several quarters including from the organisations working with mining-affected communities.

An analysis of the documents reviewed by Mongabay-India reveals that the DMF funds utilised for COVID-19 have gone into purchasing thermal imaging cameras, quattro machines, test kits, personal protective equipment, micro PCR systems – most of the equipment meant to be utilised in COVID-19 hospitals in major cities of Goa: Panjim, Vasco, Ponda and Margao.

Goa has two districts – north, which covers the mining belt, the coastal belt as well as the major cities of Panjim and Mapusa; and south, which also covers the mining belt, the coastal belt and the major cities of Margao, Vasco and Ponda.

The remaining Rs 4 crore went into providing water to mining-affected villages, providing transportation facilities for school children, pumping water out of the mining pits in a few villages, and desilting agricultural land for the village of Sirigao in north Goa. This utilisation, lawyers and activists say, has come only after being slapped by court orders.

“The DMF authorities have done no work for the benefit of the mining-affected villages of their own accord,” Anamika Gode, an environmental lawyer working for Goa Foundation, a non-profit based in Goa, told Mongabay-India. “If you notice, you will see that only water and transportation facilities have been provided thus far, and only one village has had its agricultural land desilted. Work under the DMF has started only after the repeated intervention of the High Court of Bombay at Goa.”

“It took them two years to even consider these applications. And if you notice in the minutes of the meetings, all COVID-related purchase approvals are post-facto,” she added.

In August 2020, two residents of mining-affected villages filed a petition against the Goa government, stating that the DMF funds have been misused by the state government, questioning the legal basis of the diversion of funds, and stated that the mining-affected areas have been completely neglected.

Hanumant Parab, a mining activist from Pissurlem, a mining-affected village in north Goa, said that the DMF had provided their village with 117 water tanks of 500 litres capacity each.

“We are yet to get the water though. They gave us the tankers two years ago but not a drop of water had come from them yet. They need to provide more tankers also,” Parab told Mongabay-India. The village currently depends on an erratic piped water supply from the government, and mining companies are mandated to provide water to some of the wards every day.

South Goa DMF had Rs 97.43 crore in its coffers, and, of that, it used Rs 14.95 crore. And of that, Rs 14.10 crore went towards COVID-19 relief work while the remaining Rs 85 lakh was utilised for providing drinking water to the mining-affected villages in south Goa, and transportation facilities to school-going children.

Indefinite delays and lack of access

Apart from the lack of priority and initiative towards the mining-affected villages, the DMF funds have also been criticised for tardy administration.

According to the minutes of the meeting that took place for North Goa DMF in June 2020, it was decided that all applications will be routed via the concerned departments: water queries to the water resource department, education-related queries to the education department.

However, no information was given about this change, so the individuals would continue to send their applications to the DMF authorities, who would then send them to the department concerned for scrutiny who would then respond if it was worthy of funding or not and a final decision would be taken by the governing council at meetings that are supposed to be held once every three months. Another problem that cropped up was the lack of ease of obtaining information from the website.

“There is no dedicated website for DMF,” said Gode. “Some sporadic information has been provided in PDF documents on the mines department website. How is anyone ever going to update themselves on the status of the application? How will they ever know what happened to their application?” she asked.

“Goa could have been a model state for DMF activity,” she said. “Mining came to a halt, the government had a real opportunity to rehabilitate the villages and we could have really shone because we know that it is possible to bring the fields and water sources alive again and resolve issues, but sadly, the reality is quite different.”

Madhya Pradesh cannot divert funds meant for construction workers’ welfare, Centre tells SC

The Print | Jan 25, 2021

Madhya Pradesh government is seeking a Rs 1000-crore loan from a Rs 1,985-crore corpus that is meant to fund welfare schemes for construction workers.

New Delhi: The central government has opposed Madhya Pradesh government’s application seeking a loan from a fund that finances welfare schemes for construction workers, saying it would amount to diversion of funds.

In an affidavit filed before the Supreme Court last week, the Ministry of Labour opposed the BJP-ruled MP government’s application that sought a modification of an earlier SC order, passed in August 2017, that prohibited states from utilising the funds collected under the Building and Other Construction Workers’ Welfare Cess Act, 1996.

In 2017, a bench led by Justice M.B. Lokur (now retired) had directed the central government and states to implement two 20-year-old laws to augment the living conditions of construction workers and their families.

The two laws — the Building and Other Construction Workers (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1996 (BOCW Act) and the Building and Other Construction Workers Welfare Cess Act, 1996 — are meant to regulate employment service conditions of building and construction workers, and provide for safety, health and welfare measures.

However, the Madhya Pradesh government has now sought the apex court’s permission to take a loan of Rs 1,000 crore from the state welfare board that presently has around Rs 1,985 crore in its bank account.

According to the MP government, the state suffered financial losses due to the Covid-19 pandemic with its revenue collection falling by 50 per cent.

The matter was taken up by a bench led by Chief Justice S.A. Bobde Monday.

During the hearing, Additional Solicitor General Madhavi Divan said the central government had reservations “over diversion of funds.”

“These funds are specifically for vulnerable construction workers,” the ASG told the bench, which then said that it wanted to hear the statutory board, in-charge of the funds, before deciding the plea.

Funds important to sustain welfare schemes — Centre
The central government’s affidavit detailed the mitigating measures it had undertaken to protect the construction workers against economic disruption caused due to the pandemic.

It noted that, among other things, it had issued guidelines to all states to frame a scheme for the transfer of adequate funds to the bank accounts of construction workers through direct benefit transfer from the cess funds collected under the BOCW Act.

According to the affidavit, all state boards have cumulatively disbursed over Rs 5,000 crore to the bank accounts of 1.83 crore building and construction workers (BOC) during the lockdown and thereafter.

“It is submitted that in order to financially sustain these welfare schemes in the long run, with every increasing base of the BOC beneficiaries, the state boards need significant cess fund corpus,” noted the affidavit.

The two laws — BOCW and the Welfare Cess Act, 1996 — provide social security and welfare benefits to construction workers registered as beneficiaries and utilisation of the fund, by way of loan or any other means, for purposes other than those mentioned in the legislations, may not be permissible and tantamount to diversion of funds, the affidavit added.

Even the 2017 judgment came down heavily on states and warned them to ensure there is no diversion of funds, it noted.

Madhya Pradesh to return loan amount once state exchequer replenished
Meanwhile, according to the Madhya Pradesh government, the Covid-19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdown, which halted all economic activity, led to an acute decline in the state’s revenue.

“Due to the lockdown and spread of Covid pandemic, the revenue collection of the state in the months from April to June 2020 was only Rs 6,551 crore compared to Rs 12,992 crore in the same months in 2019,” noted the state’s application.

Even mining activity remained suspended, leading to sharp reduction in royalties and other taxes.

The decline in revenue receipts in stamps and registration has been 45 per cent, in state excise it is 57 per cent, while reduction of 20 per cent was seen in revenues and taxes on sale and trade, the MP government said.

“This is resulting in financial resource crunch for the state government, specifically for implementation of welfare schemes and completion of ongoing capital infrastructure projects,” read the application.

It added that since the state welfare board had spent around Rs 376 crore on construction workers in 2019-20, hence a loan of Rs 1,000 crore out of the Rs 1,985-crore corpus would not hinder its functioning.

The state also noted that it will return the loan amount to the corpus once its exchequer is replenished within a year.

On the state’s claim that it had to look after interests of a large number of migrant labourers who returned to MP due to Covid-19, Diwan submitted Monday before the CJI-led bench that such persons will be eligible for the schemes in states where they are registered as construction workers.

How Modi Government’s Thermal Power Reforms Aggravate Pollution

News Click | Nov 20, 2020

The push for the use of domestic coal is directly focused on revitalising coal mining and thermal power companies, including addressing their sluggish response to the coal auctions, said experts

New Delhi: Even as most of India is gripped by severe air pollution, reforms by the Modi government for the thermal power sector, particularly those undertaken to push the use of domestically-produced coal, could further aggravate the situation. In the latest in a series of relaxations, the BJP-led Central Government has granted thermal power plants leeway to change their sources of coal without amending environmental clearances.

The restrictions on sourcing of coal were lifted through an office memorandum issued by the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change (MoEF&CC) on November 11. Instead of seeking an amendment to environmental clearance, a thermal power plant will now simply need to ‘inform’ the ministry that it would be changing over to a new coal source, irrespective of the potential environmental hazards such a change would entail.

“Details regarding change in source (location of the source, proposed quantity, distance from the power plant and mode of transportation), quality (ash, sulphur, moisture content and calorific value) shall be informed to the Ministry and its Regional Office. The quantity of coal transported from each source along with the mode of transportation shall be submitted as part of EC [Environmental Clearance] Compliance Report,” the memorandum stated.

The memorandum also allows for transportation of coal along road routes, albeit in lorries covered with tarpaulins, which, nevertheless, could also be a potential source of air pollution.

In June, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had announced the auction of 41 coal blocks for commercial mining by private players. The auction process for allotment of the blocks is still underway even as the number of blocks were later scaled down to 38, primarily due to environmental concerns raised by the Chhattisgarh government.

However, in the run up to the auction of coal blocks, the Centre brought about policy changes that laid greater impetus upon usage of domestically produced coal. Coal mined in India has a higher percentage of ash as compared to high-grade imported coal, which is of better quality and hence, expensive. Environmental hazards from fly ash are only expected to increase over the next few years as more thermal power plants shift to domestically produced coal.

Experts say the move to allow thermal power plants to change the quality and source of coal at will, needs to be understood alongside the pool of reforms for the coal sector in India, including carte blanche approvals for road transportation where precautions, prior approvals or impact assessments do not exist.

“The push for domestic coal is directly focused on revitalising the mining and coal power companies, including addressing the sluggish response to the coal auctions,” said Kanchi Kohli of the Center for Policy Research, a Delhi-based public policy think tank.

Reforms for thermal power and coal mining industries have been brought into effect notwithstanding the fact that combustion of fossil fuel is one of the major sources of environmental pollution. Fly ash, which contains highly toxic elements, is one of the byproducts from coal combustion in thermal power plants. Improper management of gargantuan quantities of fly ash accumulated over several decades has resulted in large scale air and water pollution in areas close to thermal power plants. Apart from fly ash, thermal power plants are also cause air pollution from sulphurous emissions, where coal containing high percentages of sulphur is used.

In April 2020, the Modi government had come out with a policy which encouraged thermal power firms to switch over from imported coal to domestically-produced coal. The Union Ministry of Power, which issued the policy advisory, had also set up a mechanism to ‘deal with difficulties faced by the power companies in obtaining required quantity, quality of domestic coal including logistic bottlenecks’.

In May, the central government did away with the mandatory need to use coal with ash content below 34% in thermal power plants. Domestically-produced coal has an ash content in the range between 35% to 40% or above, while most coal imported to India has an ash content between ten to fifteen per cent. The notification, issued on May 21 by the MoEF&CC, also did away with the mandatory requirement of washing coal before its usage in thermal power plants. As per experts, coal washing is a procedure that helps remove ash percentage by around eight per cent.

Though usage of domestically-produced coal is expected to generate larger quantities of fly ash, the central government has, however, ruled out any entitlement for thermal power plants to increase capacities of their existing fly ash ponds unless they expand their electricity generation capacities.

In the latest office memorandum issued on November 11 too, the Centre has clearly ruled out any provision for additional ash ponds other than that which have been allowed in the environmental clearances to respective thermal power plants.

These relaxations have been granted even as several regions in the country are battling with air and water pollution caused by thermal power plants. There have also been numerous instances of fly ash pond dyke breaches in which toxic slurry has spread over farmlands and habitations resulting in loss of lives, damage to agricultural crops and pollution of nearby water bodies.

“Substitution of imported coal with domestically produced coal is good from the point of view of increasing our forex reserves. However, there are certain plants located along the coasts of the country that have been designed to have the natural advantage of using imported coal. A few ultra-mega power projects have also been specifically designed to use a certain quality, quantity and blend of coal. The correlation between fly ash generation and its utilisation is important. The economics of fly ash utilisation should not work to anyone’s disadvantage. Transportation of fly ash not only blocks rail capacity but also involves rail freight charges. And there is obviously the threat of environmental pollution during the loading and unloading processes,” former Advisor (Coal) to government of India, R.K. Sachdev, told NewsClick.

At the same time, most thermal power plants in the country have missed the December 2017 deadline for 100% fly ash utilisation. The Union Ministry of Environment and Forests, as it was called during the previous Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government, had in November 2009 issued a notification regarding fly ash utilisation. The notification had set a five-year time period with staggered deadlines for thermal power plants to utilise fly ash. For existing plants, a maximum period of five years was set for 100% of fly ash from November 2009. For new plants, the ministry has set a deadline of four years for 100% utilisation within a period of four years from the date of commissioning. This notification was later amended by the Modi government in January 2016 to extend the deadline for existing plants further, till the end of 2017.

However, as per the latest report of the Central Electricity Authority, fly ash utilisation in the country was only 78.19% during the first half of financial year 2019-20. Only 39 out of 105 thermal power plants had fly ash utilisation in the range of 100% or above.

On November 6, the National Green Tribunal reiterated its earlier order upon the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) to compute and recover environmental compensation from thermal power plants that have missed deadlines for the 100% utilisation of fly ash. This order was issued following a CPCB report, submitted to the tribunal in September, as per which 102 of 112 thermal power plants had refused to pay environmental compensation on various grounds (including appeals pending in the Supreme Court). Eight plants never responded to the CPCB notices while only two plants paid up the penalties.

“Ironically, this comes at a time when there is a global move away from coal-based power, including financial support. It also comes with complete knowledge that Indian coal which is high in ash content will only add to the huge backlog of fly ash mismanagement,” said Kohli.

Pitching for ‘Self-Assessment’ of Welfare Cess, Draft Labour Rules to Hurt Construction Workers

News Click | Nov 16, 2020

It marks a break with legal tradition in the construction sector, wherein till now an assessing officer was authorised to indicate the cess amount payable by the employer.

New Delhi: The amount to be collected as cess towards welfare of the construction workers will be self-calculated by employers, the Centre has proposed in the new draft labour rules. The move, say trade unions, will serve to empower construction companies to further shirk their responsibilities towards labour.

A cess that is not less than 1% of the cost of construction, “shall be paid by an employer in advance, on the basis of his self-assessment duly certified by Chartered Engineer at the time of approval or before the commencement of the work,” stated the draft rules of the Code on Social Security, 2020, notified by Union Ministry of Labour and Employment on Sunday, November 15.

The draft labour rules have been notified by the Centre just days ahead of a general strike call by 10 central trade unions and several federations and associations of workers, including those in the unorganised sector, on November 26.

For the purpose of self-assessment, the employer shall calculate the cost of construction as per the rates specified by the State Public Works Department or Central Public Works Department or on the basis of return or documents submitted to the Real Estate Regulatory Authority, according to the draft rules made public by the Central government for inviting stakeholders’ suggestions within a period of 45 days.

The draft rules, which elaborate the procedure for self-calculation and payment of cess, mark a break with the legal tradition in the construction sector, wherein earlier, under The Building and Other Construction Workers’ Welfare (BOCW) Cess Rules, 1998, an assessing officer was authorised to indicate the cess amount payable by the employer, after scrutinising the information furnished by the latter.

The 1998 rules provided for operationalisation of provisions in the 1996 welfare Act for building and other construction workers, that is now subsumed, along with other eight Central labour enactments, under the social security code – passed by Parliament in September this year.

The Act provided for setting up of a welfare board by each state government for utilising the funds collected through the cess for the welfare of construction workers. The benefits for a registered worker with the board included pension, accident insurance, medical aid, scholarship for children among others.

The unions representing construction workers have flayed the ‘codification’ of the 1996 Act that has led to the “dilution” of its already neglected provisions. “The changes will bred corruption that will result in underestimation of the cess amount,” said Thaneshwar Dayal Adigaur, convenor, Nirman Mazdoor Adhikar Abhiyan, a Delhi-based umbrella body of over 40 registered unions in the city.

According to him, the ‘self-assessment’ provision doesn’t address the issues that are plaguing the cess collection process, which is “grossly delayed or not paid”, especially when it comes to the private construction activities.

“Already, not many private firms are registered with the board. Hence, no cess is collected on construction activities that are carried out by them. When it comes to the ones that are registered, they usually have a history of being not completely honest with the authorities. Allowing them to calculate the cess amount on their own may further give rise to instances of under-collection or ill-calculation of the welfare cess,” said Adigaur, a member of the advisory committee to the Delhi government that oversees matters relating to the construction workers’ welfare board.

Even as an assessing officer retains the authority to issue notices to an employer in case of any discrepancies in the calculation of construction cost and the cess amount, much of their other powers in keeping a check on construction activities have been taken away, as per the draft rules.

The draft rules propose that an assessing officer should visit the construction site only with prior approval from the Secretary of the BOCW concerned. Also, the power to stop construction work – for a period deemed necessary for the purpose of any examination – is now proposed to be withdrawn.

Furthermore, the rate of interest for delayed payment of cess has been reduced from 2% every month or part of a month to 1%, thereby giving a “breather” to the offenders.

A press note by the Labour Ministry on Sunday, however, claimed that the new code entitles even those workers to benefits under BOCW, who have migrated from one state to another. The responsibility to provide benefits in such cases shall lie with the board of the state in which a worker is currently working, it says.

It may be noted that the 2020 Code on Social Security already reduces the coverage of the legal provisions under it by not including any construction work that employs less than 10 workers or any project for residential purposes that is worth up to Rs. 50 lakh. Such a threshold amount was Rs. 10 lakh under the earlier BOCW Act, which also required all the establishments – irrespective of the number of workers employed – to get registered under it.

Subhash Bhatnagar, coordinator, National Campaign Committee for Construction Labour (NCC-CL), rued how the labour codes rob vulnerable construction workers of the legal shield that was meant to protect them. “As many as 64 clauses of the 1996 BOCW Act have now been reduced to only seven (this number is actually nine) under the social security code; while 15 of those under the 1998 rules are now down to only six (which is actually seven),” he told NewsClick.

Bhatnagar admitted that this could be so because “90% of the BOCW Act was related to the safety of construction workers,” who were supposed to find space under The Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions (OSH&WC) Code, 2020 –one among the total four labour codes.

Is that the case? Not really, said Bhatnagar, adding that “in fact, what the Centre has done is to compromise the occupational safety provisions for construction workers by clubbing it with other industries.”

He said relaxing the threshold limit for cess collection on residential projects would also put “negative pressure” on the registration of construction workers employed for such activities with the welfare board.

In March, as the country was going through a sudden COVID-triggered lockdown, the Centre issued an advisory asking all state governments to distribute the Rs. 52,000 crore – a cumulative amount collected as cess by the respective BOCW boards – among the 3.5 crore construction workers.

Trade unions had then reportedly pegged the total number of labourers engaged in the sector, and in need of an assistance, to be nearly six crore.

The draft rules, in a bid to provide app-based workers and those within the unorganised sector with benefits under the social security schemes, has provided for an Aadhaar-based self-registration system on the portal of the Central government.

Here again, app-based firms (colloquially known as the gig economy) will be contributing towards the fund for welfare of their workers after self-assessment.

Gig economy companies are required to make contributions to the fund that “shall not exceed five per cent of the amount paid or payable” to its platform workers, the Code on Social Security had stated earlier. As for the funding towards the welfare of unorganised workers, the draft rules have reportedly failed to provide any clarity, say unions.

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