Babus work for Chaos

Trade, Traffic or Pensions, Babudom Contributes to Chaos 

            AUS delegation was reportedly surprised that nobody in New Delhi could tell them the rates of customs duty on various items. What is as surprising is that all tariff rates are put up on the website of the Central Board of Excise and Customs, but no babu thought of pointing that out. These rates would have to be read with the latest set of exemption notifications, also available on the website, but babus work too little to be able to impart such elementary information.  

          They are best at obfuscating rules by making arbitrary interpretations, acts which point to their shoddiness rather than competence. Take the case of service tax on goods transport. A bunch of New Delhi bureaucrats suddenly decided that consumers of transport services should be denied the benefit of Cenvat credit, which would allow them to offset tax on inputs against tax on output. Thousands of notices have been issued all over the country to recover such credits and penalise consumers of transport services. So the consumer pays the service tax without receiving any input credit.  

          In another instance of arbitrariness, the government decided to take away from pensioners what it promised to them in the first place. It accepted the recommendations of the Fifth Pay Commission, which tried to bring about parity between pre-96 and post-96 pensioners. After paying higher pensions for the next few years, a ‘clarification’ from the department of pensions altered the criteria and robbed a few thousand pensioners of some benefits with retrospective effect. This led to confusion and litigation, all of which could have been avoided if the bureaucracy had worked out the norms to begin with. In both the service tax and pension episodes, the bureaucracy sought to take away through administrative ‘circulars’ what the legislature or cabinet had accepted.  

          Indians have to put up with unnecessary, complicated laws and equally arcane interpretations. Rules and laws, many of them poorly conceived and drafted, are seen as an answer to every problem.

           A Bill on maintenance of aged parents, which has been tabled in Parliament, provides that the offspring who fail in his duty will be imprisoned. What happens to the aged parents?  

         While the state adopts a rules-based approach to everything, the people too invite laws upon themselves, thanks to the absence of a culture of voluntary compliance.       

      The stiff traffic penalties announced recently by the Delhi high court are a case in point — they might not have come into force had road users been more disciplined to begin with.

      Both the state and citizen share an uneasy relationship with the world of rules. 

          The latter cannot respect rule of law but loves to fight over rules in court, while the former creates a clutter of rules to perpetuate its importance. The two make for a strange jugalbandi. 

TOI  12 April 07

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