We should celebrate those who pay taxes: View
The minority that accounts for its income and pays taxes every year is lonely in its faith and sense of duty.
Every time the Budget is presented, we look forward to tax concessions. Will they raise the exemption limit? Shouldn’t the tax on capital gains from equity go? What about higher incentive for long-term saving and retirement? The list is long.
Corporates appearing on television debates stay on the right side of the government, mouthing cautious criticism sometimes, while mostly giving the Budget good marks. But their eyes are trained on the concessions they lobbied for. Sometimes the argument is about level playing field; sometimes about encouragement to a certain type of business. Many look up to the boost the government can give their business.
The stock market eagerly rates the Budget even as the speech is in progress. During the years of dismantling of control and licence raj, fortunes were made if one invested in the sector the government liberalised. Sector analysis and impact studies of Budget proposal was an industry founded on such gains, and continues to survive even though largely irrelevant. The undertone of market movement is firmly set on who received benefits from the Budget.
This focus on concessions exposes us for the citizens we are. The Budget is the government’s fund raising exercise. We need money to build infrastructure, to invest in education and health, to secure power, water, and basic amenities for our population. Any Budget that tightens the tax regime to ensure enough money is mobilised for these causes, will become the most unpopular one.
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We are a nation of tax evaders. We pride ourselves in breaking the law and finding shortcuts to every process. We collude and corrupt and doom to failure any measure that mobilises even a small percentage of our income for public good. We dislike any rule that asks us to account for our income truthfully. What we earn is ours, and we will keep it. If our methods create exploitative capitalists, we scoff at it. Big picture is not our strength.
As innovation and entrepreneurship emerge despite the inequality, we celebrate that unique Indian spirit. We spot that spirit in little things around us—the delivery boys who optimise time, the vendor who conserves resources, the maid who graduates to cooking are all stories that tell us that enterprise thrives, despite the government. We have found our incomes; paying taxes be damned.
Many small businesses pay indirect taxes that hurt their incomes. They pay to ward off the inspectors, policemen, goons and vested interests. Bigger businesses spend on lobbying; set up pet projects for political benefactors; collude with politicians to bend laws and get away; and new businesses pay their way into permissions and land grabs. All these spends are taxes in their minds, except that not one paisa of it goes into public good.
When we navigate the potholes on Mumbai roads, and deal with the repetitive flooding every monsoon, we might have found the answer to our tendency to evade taxes. The government is so corrupt that it simply won’t fix the common man’s problems with the tax money it gets. Our elected representatives simply waste the taxpayers’ money.
Those in power choose projects that line their pockets. Or implement systems that ensure the taxpayers’ money is inefficiently utilised. Dig deeper and we find horror stories of how inept the government’s administration and execution systems are. There is an army of corrupt rent seekers that hang on to government projects, to siphon off the money. We are left with costs and time overruns and poorly executed projects.
At one level, the refusal to pay taxes seems like a victory over inept governments that don’t work. The sad truth though is we are a country with no integrity. At every level, we break rules, serve our own private interests, stomp over others, collude and corrupt as we work, overlook the truth and lie blatantly, and are very nonchalant about our unlawful and illegal behaviour.
Leaders with integrity are inspirational. Like Metro Man E.Sreedharan. There are unsung heroes of this kind who work with the highest integrity, delivering great quality with focus on public good. But their work is unknown. Their methods are not known, followed and appreciated. Except for a few, the others are not heroes in popular lore.
The most popular public figures in this country that is severely impoverished by its lack of integrity, are film heroes. We live in denial, celebrating those who entertain us, as if they are real heroes who can change the world. Or we have our cricketers, who represent an island of competence in the global sporting arena, whom we look up to, despite all the chinks in their armour delivered by the products they endorse for money.
The honest taxpayer is a joke in the midst of all this. Disregarded as foolish, the minority that accounts for its income and pays its taxes every year, is lonely in its faith and sense of duty. Many argue that if employers did not deduct tax at source, a large part of the compulsory taxpayers would have joined the evaders. But we must make an example of those who pay and celebrate them.
There is a lot of work to do about how the government levies and collects taxes and how it spends that money. There is no doubt that innovative thinking and integrity in execution is necessary. We cannot legislate for or make rules to inculcate integrity. But that is one quality this nation needs.
It will take time for integrity to become our popular culture. The Scandinavian countries rank high in every single ranking of development and quality of life indices, because of that one quality: integrity.
We can begin with paying our tax dues. The government can begin with collecting the taxes efficiently and showing responsibility in spending it. Celebrating honesty is long overdue in this country, where the Father of the Nation is the global symbol for fearless truth.
(The author is Chairperson, Centre for Investment Education and Learning)