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January 29, 2001
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Why the govt is reluctant to declare the Bhuj quake a national calamity

Tara Shankar Sahay in New Delhi

The government's reluctance to declare the devastating Bhuj earthquake as a national calamity stems from its apprehension that such a move entails a 'financial emergency' in the country which could be counter-productive, according to senior government official M Y Siddiqui.

Siddiqui, who is from the law ministry, pointed out that financial emergency or declaring the Bhuj earthquake as a national calamity (which has already claimed over 20,000 lives) would involve measures like the freezing of financial increments in the government and 'unforgiving' tax collection by the tax authorities.

He said that in normal circumstances, tax disputes could even be taken to the level of the finance minister. But once financial emergency was declared in the country, there would be 'no reprieve' and people would compulsorily have to shell out the taxes.

Keeping such a thing in mind, the government had recently brought in the Taxations Laws (Amendment) Act, 2001, which seeks to increase the rate of surcharge payable by domestic companies for the assessment for the year 2001-2002 from the existing 10 per cent by 1 per cent to 11 per cent of the income tax payable.

He pointed out that the increased surcharge aims at forming a corpus for the National Centre for Calamity Management which has been set up by the government to monitor natural calamities like cyclones, droughts, earthquakes, fires, floods and hailstorms.

He said that the assistance provided by the Centre to the states in this context would be financed by such additional levy of special surcharge on the central tax for a limited period.

The Eleventh Finance Commission has made this recommendation, Siddiqui pointed out.

During the past three days, the Union agriculture secretary Bhaskar Baruah had sidestepped reporters' question on why the government was reluctant to declare the Bhuj earthquake as a national calamity.

When pressed, Baruah said: "What is the use, can you tell me? We are doing everything that is needed."

He indicated that Union cabinet secretary T R Prasad, who heads the government's Crisis Management Group, had also stressed that the there was no question of the Bhuj earthquake being declared as a national calamity.

Former prime minister Indira Gandhi had clamped 'internal emergency' in 1974, but financial emergency had never been imposed in the country, Siddiqui pointed out.

External emergency had been invoked in 1948, 1962, 1965 and 1971, along with the Defence of India Rule.


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