Sunday, June 28, 2009

Taxpayers need to be treated like customers

Picture yourself doing this. You buy a plasma TV at a high price. The salesman is not only rude, but treats you like dirt. You swallow the humiliation, for you badly want that TV.

Your neighbours all have one. After you take the product home, it fails to work and you spend weeks trying to get it fixed. If you are the gutsy type, you will take the manufacturer to a consumer court. If you are more docile, you are at least likely to curse him and resolve never to buy the brand again. Either way, you have a choice. The manufacturer has to take note or he has lost a customer.

But what if you are against a monopolist, who couldn't care less if you are unhappy with his service, who wouldn't worry about whether customers are loyal or disloyal?

That, in sum, is the situation the Indian taxpayer finds himself in today. Especially salaried taxpayers, who have few options when it comes to dodging the taxman.

Taxpayers are customers. We pay taxes in order to receive certain goods and services from the government, whether it is protection of life and limb, maintenance of clean streets, or providing social safety nets for our less fortunate brethren.

If the government does not provide these services efficiently, it is no different from that crooked plasma TV manufacturer we talked about earlier on. It is, in effect, cheating us and we have a right to ask for our money back.

Yes, I know, we can always throw a government out if it does not deliver, but what about the money we have already paid up? Morally, all taxpayers still ought to be treated like customers, for we are the people paying the bill for even something as fundamental as the right to vote. Far from being accountable to us, the government and the tax department treats us callously.

Take the recent case of e-filing. The Central Board of Direct Taxes is doing everything possible to make life inconvenient for us by laying down rules that can only deter us from filing online. First, it told us that yes you can e-file, but you won't get any acknowledgement and you have to send the hard copy to Bangalore. God forbid if they don't get it. You have to file again. Can't these babus accept our returns in any city and dispatch the bundle themselves?

Next, we are told that every tax deduction at source must indicate a unique transaction ID, failing which the tax deduction will be treated as invalid. Now, if this what is required to match the data at the back end, why think about it 45 days before the last date for filing returns? Why can't they think about it now and implement it from next year? Quite clearly, serving the man who pays their salaries in the last thing on the minds of taxmen.

But we are still talking only about the softer aspect of service. The hard aspects -- delivery of bang for the buck -- is sorely missing. In return for my taxes, the government should be delivering security.

But if a local thug threatens me in my home, I am more likely to do a deal with him than go to the police. So my taxes do not deliver security; I am paying additional taxes to the local goonda. Next, civic services. Do I get garbage-free streets or adequate power? Hardly. Our cities are glorified garbage dumps. In most middle class households, inverters and generators are a necessity. In short, power supply is becoming a private responsibility.

Well, maybe the taxes we pay are not enough to pay for all the services we want. Maybe. But consider this. Even taxes collected for specific services don't yield decent service. Mumbai collects a humongous amount of entry tolls to improve city roads.

The tolls have been rising almost every year, but the quality of city roads keeps deteriorating. So where is the toll money going? What is the government really delivering in return for my tax payments? Pretty much zilch. Indian taxpayers now have no option but to organise, agitate and sue the government for failure to deliver what it should. If they don't, the government will treat them as chattel.

Dear taxpayer, remember this: you are the customer and the government has to treat you decently. If not, you should collectively drag it to court.

1 comment:

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