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June, 21st 2010

The Centre is likely to inform the Supreme Court that it will not be necessary for the court to give a direction on the Sebi-Irda spat over regulating Ulip, India's most popular life insurance product.

This will now be possible after the unexpected government ordinance on Saturday which clearly put Ulip within the category of life insurance products, establishing the authority of the Insurance Regulatory and Development Authority (Irda) over them. The fact that there has been no progress on filing a joint petition by Sebi and Irda so far will also help the government while it informs the court.

Saturday's ordinance brought to an abrupt end the turf battle kicked off when capital market regulator Sebi on April 9 banned 14 life insurers from selling the product, which was followed by Irda asking insurers to ignore the Sebi notice.

Government officials said the earlier plan to seek court intervention was somewhat 'forced,' with neither of the regulators nor the finance ministry keen on it. Sebi had asked for clubbing all cases related to the issue from various high courts to the Supreme Court where the government is also a respondent. Even though it was not part of the agenda, the securities and insurance laws ordinance 2010 was cleared at a meeting of the Union Cabinet on June 17.

The ordinance was a result of several parleys within the finance ministry on who should control the product, which constitutes over 80% of the life insurance market. While the government felt that Sebis position that Ulips should be controlled by it the same way as mutual funds was correct in principle, it would take away the entire justification of having a regulator for the insurance sector.

Incidentally, the decision was taken at a time when key officials of some of the organisations concerned, including the Sebi chief CB Bhave, were out of station. The government apparently caught everybody off guard by bringing a sudden end to the turf war between the markets regulator and the insurance regulator.

After the Sebi-Irda spat in April, the issue was referred to the law ministry. Sebi had moved the apex court after two public interest litigations were filed in the Bombay High Court and the Allahabad High Court over Ulips. Hearing the Sebi petition, a supreme court bench headed by S H Kapadia had issued notices to life insurance companies and the central government.

Saturday's ordinance also states that products approved by Irda and pension watchdog PFRDA will not fall under the purview of Sebi. The ordinance amended the RBI Act 1934, Insurance Act 1938, Sebi Act 1992 and Securities Contract Regulations Act 1956, clarifying that life insurance business will include any unit-linked insurance policy or scripts or any such instruments.

Incidentally, the capital markets division in the finance ministry had apparently supported the Sebi stand that insurance companies should be regulated by the markets regulator. But the finance minister reportedly stood by the law ministrys clarification on the issue. The government may now provide some tax exemption for investment in Ulips, which will no longer be exempted from the taxes under the revised direct taxes code.

The move will cheer the life insurance council the lobbying body of life insurance companies which has already decided to move the government to demand tax exemption for Ulips. Our stand is that Ulips are not pure investment products. We will approach the revenue department soon to bring further clarity, life insurance council chairman secretary general SB Mathur has said.

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