Ease of living, in a punitive state

Topics Indian Economy | Demonetisaton | GST

Under this government, slogans, memes, catchphrases, alliterative coinages, and clever abbreviations abound. One of them being repeated ad nauseam is ease of living. Like the other slogans, this one too sounds highly ironic, given that the state is creating an endless cycle of stress for its citizens, for which the faceless administration is never held accountable. Here is a short sample. Remember, while these examples are chosen at random, it reflects a bias — that of urban, middle-class people. In all fairness, ease of living should work first for the poor, mainly in rural areas. But we get to know less of what is ha­ppening there, even though punitive action by the state hurt them more.

Demonetisation: This Tughlaq-like move was the mother of all blows to ease of living and set the tone for what to expect. Demonetisation, as anticipated, did not eliminate corruption, yield black money, or reduce cash levels. But it inflicted unnecessary and large-scale suffering mainly on the poor.  

Forced Aadhaar: Narendra Modi, who was dead against Aadhaar when the Congress was in power, started pushing this project with evangelical zeal once he became prime minister. His style is take no prisoners and offer no reasons. So he never deigned to explain his 180-degree turn and Aadhaar was pushed down our throat when it is clear that the number is not proof of residence, citizenship, identity, or even of existence because no one has verified the authenticity of the Aadhaar database! But from birth to death, Aadhaar was being made mandatory, putting people, especially the poor, to enormous risk and hardship. A mid-2018 report says that more than 2 million people in just th­r­ee states were not getting their rations because of Aad­haar. That’s not ease of living; it is a punitive state in action.

Bulldozing electric vehicles: “We should move towards alternative fuel … I am going to do this, whether you like it or not. And I am not going to ask you. I will bulldoze it.” That was Nitin Gadkari, minister for roads, transport and highways, speaking to automakers on September 8, 2017. Separately, the NITI Aayog has warned that if manufacturers of two- and three-wheelers do not meet a short deadline to produce electric vehicles (EVs), they will be asked to pay up for causing pollution. To bulldoze an existing industry with intricate backward and forward linkages, and to order a new one to come up in its place overnight, is neither ease of business, nor ease of living.  It is another example of a punitive state in action.

GST Raj: Goods and services tax (GST) imposes criminal penalties for a range of violations — from simple mistakes to frauds — no matter the size of the enterprise. GST commissioners can arrest people without registering an FIR and businessmen do not have the option of anticipatory bail. The GST law empowers the GST commissioner to arrest a person merely if he has “reasons to believe” that he has committed an offence under Section 132 of the Central GST Act. GST laws and practices make for a particularly fertile ground of punitive actions.

Vehicle fines: The new Motor Vehicles Act has imposed draconian fines for every kind of violation. These are so egregious and excessive that one of the first states not to follow them was BJP-ruled Gujarat, followed by several others. 

Jail term for lapses in corporate social responsibility: In August last year, the government made specified corporate social responsibility (CSR) spending mandatory for a large cross-section of firms. Worse, lapses were supposed to be penalised, not just with fines but also a jail term for the designated executive for up to three years. This caused so much uproar that the state rolled it back. Why not some punitive action for ministers and babus who thought of this mindless monstrosity?

Jail for late filing of I-T returns: Section 276CC deals with failure to file returns on time. If the tax amount is more than Rs 1 lakh, it attracts rigorous imprisonment for six months to seven years, plus a fine. What happens if the taxpayer pays up the tax amount due on his own with penalty? The law does not envisage a scenario where there is no tax amount due anymore, only the filing was late. The department wants to jail the taxpayer, who is not a tax evader, even in such cases.

Tax laws and circulars are draconian, and getting more so everyday, on top of the stiff targets set for the department by the finance ministry. I am told that the Income-Tax Department has targets for issuing prosecution notices and other penal provisions, which are monitored weekly by New Delhi. But there will be no ease of living for taxpayers because the government does not recognise that both the tax laws and the department’s attitude as a whole are punitive. That’s because the prime minister does not see this as a systemic problem; he believes that only some “black sheep in the tax administration may have misused their powers and harassed taxpayers”.

It is common sense that a combination of draconian laws and corrupt machinery will cause widespread extortion and distress. Why can’t netas and babus see this? Maybe they know it. And so they have coined #EaseOfLiving to preempt anyone from seeing how the state thinks that citizens alone are the culprit and liable to be fined and jailed for failing to navigate their mindless rules. Ease is living is ABCD of governance today — avoid, bully, confuse and deflect any discussion about a punitive state.
The writer is the editor of www.moneylife.in
Twitter: @Moneylifers

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