The EPFO trustees took up the issue for a final decision on the rate of return for its subscribers at a meeting held this month.
The 4.7 crore EPFO (Employees' Provident Fund Organisation) subscribers were left guessing during the year on continuance of 9.5% interest rate for this fiscal, with the retirement fund body, in an unprecedented development, deciding to refer it to the finance ministry for a final decision.
Despite intense deliberations during the year, the EPFO’s apex decision making body, Central Board of Trustees (CBT), headed by the Labour Minister, failed to arrive at a conclusion on the issue. The EPFO trustees took up the issue for a final decision on the rate of return for its subscribers at a meeting held this month. It has provided three different alternative rates to the Finance Ministry for consideration, including its own recommendation of 8.25%, 9.5% as demanded by the unionists and employer's prescribed rate of 8.5% for current fiscal.
"There are different views that emerged on the issue of rate of interest to be paid this fiscal. We will send the viewpoints of the EPFO, unionists and employers' representatives to Finance Ministry for a decision," said Labour Minister Mallikarjun Kharge. As per the practice, the EPFO, which is an autonomous body, decides the interest rate on provident fund deposits for every financial year in advance on the basis of income projection and then seeks finance ministry's concurrence.
The EPFO's way of handling the issue invited sharp reaction from the unionists with Hind Mazdoor Sabha Secretary AD Nagpal, who is also a trustee, saying: "This is unfortunate. It has happened for the first time".
Similar views were expressed by another trustee and All India Trade Union Congress Secretary DL Sachdev who said CBT should have taken a decision on the matter.
The CBT takes the final call on the issue on the basis of the recommendations of its advisory body Finance and Investment (FIC) and sends its decision to the finance ministry for its concurrence. Interestingly, even the FIC could not give a firm recommendation and reported its unionists members' reservations on the issue.
However, it pointed out in its recommendations to the CBT that providing 8.25% rate for the current fiscal would result in a deficit of Rs24 lakh which would further swell to Rs526.44 crore at 8.5%.
During the FIC meeting on December 22, the unionist punched many holes on the accuracy of the EPFO's official estimate of income projections and demanded maintaining 9.5% rate of return during 2011-12 as in the last fiscal.
The employees' representatives in the FIC meeting sought clarification about the income estimation error, which was Rs458.73 crore. They pointed out that when rate of return on over 85% of the investment made by the EPFO is fixed, how could they calculate this amount on entire possible income of the body.
The unionists were of the view that if this estimation error is factored in properly, then EPFO can spare around Rs400 crore which is sufficient to pay additional 0.25% over projected 8.25% rate of return this fiscal.
EPFO has reduced 2.5% (Rs458.73) crore as estimation error from an estimated income of Rs18,349.20 crore and projected an income of Rs17,890.47 crore for 2011-12. The unionists, on their part, also raised the issue of interest income on the inoperative accounts on which EPFO has stopped paying interest rate from April 1, 2011, to the subscribers. Inoperative accounts are those accounts which have not received any contribution for 36 months or more. There is about Rs15,000 crore lying in those account, which was also invested and was yielding some returns, it was pointed out.
These points were again raised during the CBT meeting on December 23, with the unionists again demanding 9.5% rate of return for the current fiscal.
However, the minister clarified on the issue of distribution of income from inoperative accounts to live accounts, and said that "it could not be done as actual income assessment from those account will be possible only after end of this fiscal".
Besides the interest rate, the trustees also deferred the decision on their ambitious plan of fixing minimum pension at Rs1,000 per month for its subscribers and issuing contribution cards similar to bank passbook to its members.
Grievance redressal mechanisms like the Lok Adalats need to be encouraged as it is an efficient way to reduce pending cased before various courts. People as well as lawyers also should make use of this kind of alternate dispute redressal mechanisms says social activist Indrani Malkani who is also a member of the Lok Adalat for Maharashtra State Consumer Redressal Forum
Moneylife (ML): What is the driving force of the Lok Adalat (LA) in the State Consumer Redressal Commission of Maharashtra?
Indrani Malkani (IM): Lok Adalat (LA) is an Alternate Dispute Redressal (ADR) mechanism and conciliation through mediation is its driving force. The matters that the LA takes up are such litigations which are usually 10 to 12 years old and which are pending in the courts. However, litigants can also voluntarily approach the LA bench for resolving their matters. The message that goes from the LA is that perhaps litigation is not the only answer. We tell both the parties that litigation in the court is bound to take a long time and will also be expensive. On the other hand, they could well approach the LA bench and try to see reason and resolve their dispute. In LA we do not go strictly by the merits of the case. We do hear the merits in order to understand the matter but do not strictly look only at the merits, because when one is going for settlement there is always some give and take from both sides. So the merits of the case are there at the back of the matter but they do not play the all important role as they do in the regular courts. Conciliation between both parties is what LA is all about.
ML: It is said that LAs are speedy, amicable and cost effective. To what extent this is true?
IM: It is inexpensive in the sense that the panel members give their services voluntarily and do not charge any fees unlike in arbitrations. Further, we make LA more time and cost efficient as we (the panel) try not to give adjournments. We are very particular about this aspect. There may be genuine situations where dates may have to be given but this is more the exception, rather than the rule. If it is noticed that one of the parties is prone to taking dates not because he is settling the matter but because of delaying tactics, then we revert the matter to the main bench. The bench usually then passes a very strong order against the party, based on the facts and the observations recorded by us.
ML: LA rests on its informal structure. How informal are the proceedings at LA?
IM: The LA is informal to some extent. However, there is a code of conduct. It is not a formal sitting judge’s bench, but instead consists of a panel of three members who together brings in collective expertise to mediate with the litigants. The proceedings are basic in nature and more inclined towards bringing the parties together on the discussion table. Both parties are given an equal opportunity to elaborate their positions so that, as a panel we are able to find out what is the crux of the dispute. One of the crucial aspects of mediation is to allow the parties to express their emotions within a reasonable limit. This allows the parties to understand the other’s point of view, thereby creating a better understanding. Having arrived at this situation and frame of mind, the panel is then able to guide both parties to a mutually acceptable settlement and resolve the matter
ML: Is the panel given the authority to pass the final order?
IM: The final order is passed by the judicial members on based on the panel’s notations and the settlement form signed by both parties. The notations made by the panel during the settlement proceedings are made known to both parties and based on those notations an order is passed by the judicial bench.
ML: To enhance this system of grievance redressal, equal contribution from the lawyer fraternity is required. What are the steps taken to ensure this?
IM: The public’s mentality today is not tuned to settle matters through the arbitration and mediation route. This mechanism of grievance redressal needs to be encouraged and given wide publicity. ADR is being widely used worldwide, as it reduces the pressure of pending cases in the courts. Therefore, not only the people’s perception towards ADR needs to be changed but also that of the lawyers. The lawyers’ fraternity has been reluctant to accept ADR. However this is not the case in the consumer forum and most certainly not in the state commission.
The Consumer Courts Advocates Association is very active in the state commission. Most of the lawyers are sworn to strengthen the LA. Hence they make all the efforts to convince their clients that it would be in their client’s best interest to settle their matter through the LA bench.
As a panel, all of us members convey our appreciation to the lawyers and encourage to make use of the LA bench.
ML: In the year 2002, an amendment was made in Civil Procedure Code (CPC) saying—the courts should transfer the cases to ADR forum as far as possible. Is the amendment being implemented?
IM: Yes, this is true. The amendment is being implemented by the courts and cases are being transferred to their respective ADR mechanism. In the state commission’s LA bench, the statistics are not known however, the cases are regularly put on the board for the panel. Often cases are transferred from the courts if they can be settled through the ADR mechanism.
ML: LA is meant to settle the matters and come to a final conclusion. But do all matters come to a settlement? What if the matter is not settled?
IM: The purpose for coming to the LA is settlement. If the parties are not happy with the settlement terms there is no settlement and the matter goes back to the regular courts. There is no appeal to a settlement arrived at the LA bench. Either there is a settlement or there is no settlement. There are good number of cases wherein both the parties in spite of eight to 10 hearings do not come to a settlement. In such cases the matter is sent back to the regular courts with appropriate notations from the LA panel and the court hears the matter for final disposal.
ML: What are your suggestions to make the Lok Adalats more efficient in thier functioning?
IM: a) Infrastructure. The infrastructure in the state commission courts where the LA panel is part of is rather dismal. This is an important aspect that needs great attention. It is ironical that the courts dealing with deficiency of services and products, find themselves suffering from the same deficiency.
b) The number of cases coming to the LA has reduced in recent times. We, as a panel, have suggested that more matters be directed to the LA because the purpose of the panel is to give its time is to help the consumers. Therefore we recommend that more cases come to LA and reduce the burden on the courts.
c) Advantages of using Lok Adalats should be publicized widely by consumer organizations and the government.
(Indrani Malkani is a member of the Lok Adalat for the Maharashtra State Consumer Redressal Forum. Ms Malkani is also a Kathak dancer, a homemaker and lifetime member of Malabar Hill Resident Association. She actively participated in setting up a dedicated hawking zone in Malabar Hill area, helped clean up Girgaum Chowpatty and decongest roads, courtesy a software-run school bus service.)
Be it introduction of MNP or respite from pesky calls and SMS, it was the telecom subscribers who benefitted as the government rolled out a slew of initiatives ensuring service quality and coverage to over 800 million mobile users in India
New Delhi: Controversies seem to have become a constant companion for the Indian telecom sector and 2011 was no different as former minister A Raja and many officials got embroiled in the second generation (2G) spectrum scam and newer debates around third generation (3G) roaming pacts and licence cancellation came to the fore, reports PTI.
Though the multi-crore 2G scam had come to light last year, it was 2011 which was action-packed as Mr Raja, telecom ministry officials along with many high-profile business heads were put behind the bars for their alleged involvement in the case.
Later in the year, the telecom ministry sent notices to operators asking them to discontinue their 3G roaming agreements terming them illegal. The telecom operators had spent over Rs68,000 crore in 3G spectrum auction and another multi-crore investment was made to put in place the infrastructure to offer the high-speed internet service.
The operators have since then approached the Telecom Dispute Settlement and Appellate Tribunal (TDSAT) and got a stay on the notice, but such decisions put a question mark on the future of investments in the sector.
The government also issued 69 notices to telecom operators during the year for failing to roll out services, pushing the future of many new telecom operators in the lurch.
The 2G scam had led to a change of guard last year at the telecom ministry with Congress leader Kapil Sibal taking over.
He ensured that the sector, which has been the poster boy for economic growth, continues its growth trajectory in 2011 with a slew of initiatives for the end-consumer.
The announcement of the formulation of a new and comprehensive National Telecom Policy-2011 (NTP-2011) at the beginning of the year was a step in that direction.
Aimed at infusing greater transparency into the sector, the NTP 2011 also sought to bring in the much needed clarity and promised a consumer-oriented approach.
The new policy offered a leaf of hope with its theme of ‘One Nation-One Licence’ which, if implemented, would help consumers make calls without paying roaming charges and change operator outside their circle while retaining the same number.
The stellar growth of the Indian telecom sector continued with the addition of over 12 million new users every month as operators increased their penetration to the farthest part of the country and improved their network coverage.
Be it introduction of mobile number portability (MNP) or respite from pesky calls and SMS, it was the telecom subscribers who benefitted as the government rolled out a slew of initiatives ensuring service quality and coverage to over 800 million mobile users in India.
After much delay, on 27th September, the government finally implemented the recommendations of sectoral regulator Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) putting in place a framework to curb the menace of unsolicited calls and messages.
Subscribers were given the option of choosing to be under the “Fully Blocked” category, akin to the “Do Not Call Registry” and prevent a telemarketer to call the person.
However, the user can choose to receive communication from specific sectors like education or retail by choosing the category under the “Partially Blocked” category.
In case of violation by registered telemarketers, TRAI has recommended penalty ranging between Rs25,000 to Rs2.5 lakh.
There is a further provision for disconnection as well.
Another customer-centric service launched during the year was that of MNP, which empowered users to switch operators within a circle without losing their phone numbers.
Launched in Haryana in November 2010, the service was rolled out pan-India in January this year. Next on the cards is an inter-circle MNP, which will allow users to retain their numbers even when they move to a different telecom circle.
Analysts feel the new policy will also important as it will bring in a new set of dynamics since there have been many changes since the last NTP, unveiled 11 years ago in 1999.
From a few million subscribers, the industry has grown into the world’s second largest telecom market with over 800 million mobile users and over 12 million monthly additions.
The draft NTP-2011 envisages creating a policy framework which ensures reasonable revenue for the government, affordable services to users and robust growth of the sector.
Another important feature of the draft is that licences would be given without spectrum bundled, which has in the past created rift between old and new players over the quantity of airwaves given.
This would also ensure that the government is paid for spectrum at relevant prices and there is no under-pricing of the precious asset.
Also since a lot of licences are coming up for renewal, the extension this time is expected to be for 10 years, instead of 20 years, as part of the new policy.
Another major step the NTP seeks to bring in is liberal mergers and acquisitions norms. With some circles having as many as 12 players, the new rules may actually bring respite to a lot of the new players as well who are also financially stressed in the capital intensive telecom industry.
The draft rules also ensure that monopoly doesn’t arise post the implementation of the new rules. While maintaining that a circle should have at least six operators, the draft says that if the resultant entity (post M&A) has between 35% to 60% market share, the case would be referred to TRAI.