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Monkeying with Tax Laws

The North Block, which offices the Finance Ministry in Delhi, dazzles me. This stately edifice is of a pre-independence vintage and reminds us of the vestiges of the Raj. With long corridors, it is aesthetically designed and well-planned to tackle the extreme weather of Delhi. A walk through the corridors leads us to Budget area. Entry into this area, one understands from mid-December till March, is highly restricted. It is precisely at this point in the corridor that one notices, especially in winter monkeys huddled together for warmth.

One gets a feeling that it is these monkeys who play a key role in the budget preparation. The reasons for arriving at such conclusions are obvious. The Income-tax Act is reported to have undergone over 7000 amendments since it was enacted in 1961 – that is roughly 150 amendments every year! The less said about the Excise and Service Tax laws, the better. I could never fathom the reasons for such large-scale amendments to our tax laws, year after year. To understand this phenomenon I phoned up my friend Mr. Ram, a legal expert. “The Late Palkivala used to frown on the instability in our tax laws. He would repeatedly point out to the fact that such repeated amendments to our tax laws were in fact an investment deterrent. Yet this trend continues unabated. What is compounding the matter is that of late the trend is more towards retrospective amendments, especially where the tax department has lost in Courts. It only reflects the poor understanding of the law by the law enforcers as much as the bureaucracy’s contempt for the Judiciary. It seems that the Government is intent on laying the rules after the game is over. Surely, the day is not far off when the FM would amend the tax rates retrospectively.” Ram as usual was succinct, critical and incisive.

“But is this malaise limited only to the tax laws” I enquired, little realizing the consequential retaliation. “Narada, don’t pretend to be a duffer” he said in an admonishing tone and added, “Look at what the UP government is doing. As a last ditch effort to avoid disqualification of a Rajya Sabha member, the UP assembly has passed a Bill exempting certain posts from being regarded as offices of profit. When this becomes law, 79 posts of chairmen, deputy chairmen and directors of various corporations will no longer be regarded as offices of profit. Furthermore the word allowances payable to the incumbents will be replaced by the word honorarium.” I was appalled. “Ram, I know that even in these modern times, profit is a dirty word for our politicians. But to pass off allowances as honorarium must rank as semantic skulduggery. This comes after the long list of exemptions given to MPs and MLAs to hold offices of profit and the attendant perks (Ram pretended not to notice the emphasis I added to the word perks) that come from occupying the office.” Ram merely smiled wryly and nodded his head. His helplessness was a giveaway and added, “While anybody else could be hauled to the courts for breaking a promise, it seems Governments in India seem to explore newer ways to renege on their legal commitments.”

I asked the obvious “Tell me Ram as to why is that the Courts are silent to this – especially when their own judgments have been overruled time and again through such amendments.” Again my naivety came to the fore. Ram retorted, “The problem is that the courts in different contexts have repeatedly ruled in favour of the Legislature’s power to carry out retrospective amendment. This has emboldened the Legislature to commit such excesses.” But surely we need to stop this business of retrospective amendments as it takes away the equity quotient in our legal process. “It is time that the enlightened of this country join hands and seek an end to retrospective amendment of any statute. After all, such amendments make our bureaucracy irresponsible and polity unaccountable. It also puts of investments. Perhaps the Courts need to revisit this subject, suo moto.” Ram signed off leaving me in a befuddled state. In the alternative a PIL may be in order. Any takers?

Last modified on Sunday, 07 July 2013 07:36

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