Despite exponential spread of literacy in the country after India attained Independence, it is a matter of concern that our people, by and large, continue to be in a state of legal illiteracy. A piece of legislation is passed by the legislature; public discussion on it or its features are seldom held. After the Bill gets the assent of the President or Governor, it is published in the official gazette for public knowledge. This is no more than a mere formality. People, by and large, remain totally indifferent. We are now in a situation where we don’t know the law but are subject to it. Very often we are made aware of the law only after we have violated it. Legal illiteracy has facilitated both highhandedness of public servants and illegal activities in the society.

National Legal Services Authority do undertake various awareness activities to make people aware of their rights and about the role, activities and functioning of the legal services institutions. Though a variety of tools are used to achieve this objective, outcome has been extremely limited and legal awareness continues to be poor.

Despite exponential spread of literacy in the country after India attained Independence, it is a matter of concern that our people, by and large, continue to be in a state…

The situation gets further chaotic when the law enforcement authority too is not conversant with the law it is mandated to implement. As a result, we get into a situation where there is abundance of law but understanding of it remains confined to the lawyers and the judges. This situation in effect leads to de facto rule of men rather than rule of law.

Recently, citizens of Bhubaneswar experienced a similar situation when Bhubaneswar Municipal Corporation “revised” the Holding Tax, Latrine Tax and Lighting Tax with effect from 2019-20 and made many denizens pay hefty amounts even though the whole exercise lacked legal sanction. Most citizens were unaware of the law. Even very senior citizens who occupied senior position in government fell victim.

For instance, a close friend, Bijay Kumar Mohanty, a former senior officer of the Cooperation Department who used to pay only Rs 540/- as Holding Tax, Latrine Tax and Lighting Tax and paid this amount also for 2019-20, found his tax “revised” from 2019-20 to Rs 7044/- per year and he was asked to pay Rs. 13,520/ for two years. He did. When I asked him why he did, he said he was a law-abiding citizen and didn’t think that an official would ever make a demand if it wasn’t an authorised one.

Another friend, Gopal Mohanty who retired from a post equivalent to Special Secretary to the state Government, also paid, disregarding my advice not to pay the revised tax as the revision was not authorized by law. Not only these two, hundreds of citizens, including an Hon’ble Member of Parliament and his father, paid whatever was asked for by the Bhubaneswar Municipal Corporation. A few of us did whatever was possible– to reach out to friends and relatives, advising them not to pay and explained the position of law. I even appealed to political parties in my Tweet to intervene. These efforts, however, proved too little and too late. Somehow, Opposition Parties came in. Government suddenly responded, stopped further collection of the Holding Tax at the revised rate and awaited Court Orders.

It was a relief to those who hadn’t paid. What was, however, surprising was Government didn’t examine the issue of the legality of the revision. There was complete lack of understanding of the provisions of the Municipal Corporation Act.

The matter was finally decided by Hon’ble Orissa High Court on April 22, 2021 in Kalyani Maternity Hospital Pvt. Ltd., Bhubaneswar versus Bhubaneswar Municipal Corporation. Hon’ble High Court held that Bhubaneswar Municipal Corporation (BMC) was competent to collect tax which was leviable immediately before commencement of the Municipal Corporation (OMC) Act. The law by no means permitted BMC to levy any fresh tax after the enactment of the OMC Act under the transitional provisions of the Act. Fresh tax had to be levied only under the substantive provisions of the Municipal Corporation Act. Under the Municipal Corporation Act, there was no place for Holding Tax. The Court held that the demand notice of the BMC seeking collection of the revised holding tax from the Petitioner for a period after the commencement of the OMC Act, and at a rate higher than that was prevalent when the Odisha Municipality Act was in force, was unsustainable in law. The demand notice was therefore quashed.

Here was a case where officers responsible for the execution of a law and most citizens were in dark about the relevant provisions of law in question. That this indefensible situation prevailed in the capital city of the state and the denizens of the city, mostly highly educated, fell victim to ignorance of law, is an indicator of the pervading lack of awareness about the contents of various laws both by the citizenry and the officials mandated to enforce them.

We must work towards improvement of legal literacy in Odisha. A welfare State should be eager to have a proactive role in this effort. We have a Department of Government that looks after Public Grievance. Role of this Department could be recast and legal literacy drive initiated through assistance of eminent people in legal profession and social activists. Officials of the state government too should have regular refreshers course to make them more conversant and knowledgeable on various legislations in operation.

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same. The author can be reached at lonewalker.1942@gmail.com)

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