Modi’s taxing method may not work

S. Murlidharan | Updated on March 28, 2013

Humiliating defaulters can prove counter-productive to the tax department. — M. Moorthy

Naming and shaming defaulters works where the dues are accurately quantified and the amounts are small.

Addressing a distinguished gathering at India Today’s Conclave, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi preened with pardonable pride; he said that he had made the rich denizens of Ahmedabad pay their property tax dues not by merely naming and, thereby, shaming them, but by making a song and dance of their unbecoming conduct.

Employees of the tax collections department, bedecked in resplendent costumes, danced to the drumbeats outside the defaulters’ houses and brought to the attention of the entire neighbourhood how derelict they were in discharge of their civic duties.

Unable to withstand the dubious publicity, the house owners reportedly rushed to the nearest counter to clear up their dues!

One doesn’t know whether Modi took a cue from Kings and Caliphs of yore who used to shame criminals by painting them in black and taking them round the town in donkeys.

‘Naming and shaming’ can indeed be effective in setting the governmental cash registers ringing happily where the dues are accurately quantified, as is the case with property taxes. And for this reason, the Ahmedabad experience is worth emulating across the country. Harried banks and financial institutions too can give it a try, though one suspects that it might not work for two reasons.

First, the wilful defaulters are often thick-skinned, and go about their chores with singular nonchalance. Secondly, these worthies take shelter behind incorporated entities which have neither a body to be shamed nor a soul to be damned.

Premature and unfair

Tax evasion bristles with greater difficulties when it comes to naming and shaming. It is common knowledge that the assessing officers invariably make high-pitched assessments of big-ticket taxpayers to curry favour with their bosses as well as to ward off adverse comments that could smear their career records in black.

Adverse comments by hawkish governmental auditors also impel the assessing officers to err in favour of the exchequer.

It is widely known that government is the largest litigant in this country — with two-thirds of the cases filed in courts being filed by government departments and agencies. In these circumstances, naming and shaming may be premature at best and unfair at worst.

Often, courts rule in favour of the taxpayers in the face of highhandedness of the tax department officials.

Naming and shaming in the tax context could thus prove to be counterproductive with department officials looking sheepish at the end of the day.

Going to town with the names of those suspected to be corrupt and exposing their shenanigans with prima facie evidence was tried in our country by the feisty band of crusaders led by Arvind Kejriwal.

After attracting media spotlight for a couple of months, the movement soon fizzled out in the realisation that powers-that-be were unwilling to take action on the basis of such exposes.

Short-lived experiment too has proved to be a short-lived experiment with numerous threats of defamations cases halting the anti-corruption enthusiasts in their tracks in the UK.

The wickedly appropriate name, ‘Rat Book’, given to the compilation of sundry paedophiles, rapists, murders and terrorists in the UK won many adherents, but the initiative had to be given up following criticism that people were named even before they were convicted and that even after acquittal, names were not deleted from the book.

Professional bodies the world over conduct their disciplinary proceedings behind closed doors and are often perceived to be indulgent towards their brethren. Blacklisting of black sheep is seldom resorted to. Self-regulation has proved to be an exercise in closing ranks.

Despite Modi’s enthusiasm, naming and shaming has a limited appeal. It perhaps works where the amount involved is perfectly worked out and, thus, cannot be disputed, and when the stakes are small.

People make a show of contriteness when caught, only when the amount involved is small. But the tool can be used in the sense of database being made available to others; an incorrigible defaulter can be denied bank credit again in the future.

Last chance

The Wanchoo Committee, a good five decades ago, pointed out that the quinquennial tax amnesty schemes were availed of by the same set of persons.

This was despite the solemn admonition in each preceding scheme that it was the last opportunity for the participants to return to the path of rectitude!

To be sure, in those days computers were not used by the tax administration, but even in their absence, it was possible to check whether participants had already availed of the preceding scheme.

The least the amnesty schemes can, therefore, do is to publish the names of the participants not only to shame them but, more importantly, to ensure that they do not have the gumption to participate in the next scheme.

Public memory often is much more formidable than official records in shaming people.

(The author is a New Delhi-based chartered accountant.)

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Published on March 28, 2013
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