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View: CCD case raises questions on taxmen’s powers

Unfortunately, the sadistic attitude of income tax officers has remained unchanged over decades. Their ‘powers’ are rarely challenged by citizens who get treated like petty criminals.

, TNN|
Aug 04, 2019, 11.29 AM IST
Given that he may have been ‘guilty’ of many lapses involving money that was not his to play around with.
When a young person takes the trouble to pen a touching tribute to someone he has never met and who has been pushed to take his life at age 59, it is time to sit up and smell the coffee — literally.

An anonymous fan of the late Coffee King V G Siddhartha wrote a simple, sincere, spontaneous post which was shared by millions. In it, the person says what countless citizens felt when they heard about the tragedy: “…your untimely loss has left a bitter taste in our hearts and mouths — which even the best Whipped Cream Frappe cannot set right this time. And for the record, you didn’t fail, Sir. The damned system failed you — and we are really sorry.”

It couldn’t have been better put by a youngster whose sentiments touched so many. While financial analysts and bankers were busy putting forth their theories about the business mistakes committed by the man who introduced café culture to India, and provided a safe, contemporary space for people across demographic divides to casually walk into any one of Café Coffee Day’s 1,843 outlets and linger over their favourite brew — there was widespread outrage too. CCD was not just a popular chain selling coffee and snacks — it was more like a movement that provided much needed space to relax, meet people, network. The clever tag line said it all, “A lot can happen over coffee…” and it did! From romances to jobs — a platform had been created by a visionary, who started with an investment of 5 lakhs borrowed from his father, opened his first outlet in 1996 and went on to create an empire with a hefty revenue of 43.31 billion rupees. Let nobody take that away from Siddhartha.

This was a corporate tragedy waiting to happen. It has certainly shaken up India Inc sufficiently for some top business leaders like Anand Mahindra and Mohandas Pai to speak up. The questions raised by Siddhartha’s death cannot be ignored. On a flight back from Delhi, a sharp, smart businesswoman asked a pertinent and obvious question: “Was Siddhartha the only tycoon in India indulging in business practices that aren’t kosher? We all know how business gets done in India. Why was Siddhartha targeted?”

“Pointing fingers is easy. Agreed, some of Siddhartha‘s business decisions were indeed unorthodox and broke several golden rules. Given that he may have been ‘guilty’ of many lapses involving money that was not his to play around with, that still does not condone the conduct of those in charge of getting to the bottom of his dealings.

Unfortunately, the sadistic attitude of income tax officers has remained unchanged over decades. Their ‘powers’ are rarely challenged by citizens who get treated like petty criminals. It is time we stopped this nasty practice of I-T officers tormenting victims. By all means get to the bottom of the fraud and punish the guilty. But there has to be a more humane approach. Right now, it is nothing short of emotional torture.

The current conversation is around ‘terror tax’… and the tanking economy. India has dropped to 7th place from 5th in the world economic ranking, and even the most reticent businessmen and women are voicing their alarm at what they see as Modi government’s biggest failure — a doddering on the brink of economic disaster. The signal to tighten belts has gone out — but will that really help? Using the Café Coffee Day fiasco as a pivot to raise concerns, corporate India is finally ready to call a spade a bloody shovel. What happened to Siddhartha could happen to anyone of them. Agreed Mr Modi is in an unholy rush to ‘clean up the system’. Do it by all means! But it can’t be done overnight, and it certainly won’t happen if a sledgehammer is used to ‘fix’ selected businessmen, in what appear to be a vindictive actions.

‘Why did he have to die? Couldn’t he have paid off loans like the rest?” a puzzled and very disturbed young woman asked me. That’s the big question. Siddhartha broke under pressure and what he termed harassment. Someone was out to get him. Clearly, he felt trapped enough to end his life. Some people can brazen out a business screw-up and take what comes with it, others can’t. Clearly, Siddhartha couldn’t. Only he knew what those compulsions were. We can only guess. Businesses fail. It’s not the end of the world. People pay up. Go to jail. Come out. And carry on. We have several examples in India.

Something or someone made Siddhartha believe he had reached the end of the road… and a dream that had begun with just a single outlet and grown into an empire that extended beyond Indian shores, ended at the bottom of the swollen Nethravathi river. With Siddhartha’s passing, so many young people have lost their belief in the power of dreams. Sadly, for anybody who has ever walked into a CCD, coffee will never taste the same again.

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