March 27, 2002


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Prem Panicker

Taxing me to insomnia

I am allergic -- chronically -- to the month of March. I break out in a rash, my blood pressure raises itself several notches, I lose my appetite, I suffer bouts of insomnia...

It all happens in March. And -- no coincidence -- this is the month when the words 'tax returns' loom large on my personal horizon.

Don't get me wrong -- it is not that I have any intrinsic objection to paying taxes. I might fret and fume over the inequity of taxing me for working, for earning wages, for spending those wages in shops and theatres and restaurants, for the petrol I spend going to those shops and theatres and restaurants, and even, at times, for attempting to save those wages.

But the government tells me it needs money to run my state and my country, to provide me a better standard of life. And so, in March of every year, I pay up and -- despite the rashes and blood pressure and insomnia and all the rest of it -- I try to smile while I am doing it. I console myself by repeating, like a mantra, the taxman's mandate: From each according to his ability, to the state according to its need.

Insomniacs have various ways of passing away the sleepless night-time hours. Some read novels -- I know someone who has a special preference for the horrific works of Stephen King, Dean R Koontz, et cetera.

I have my own preference -- when sleep eludes me, I browse, at random, through the collected works of that unsung author, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India. You should try it some time -- his language is simple, but the story he tells is calculated to grip, to interest and amuse.

Listen to a few such.

In Andhra Pradesh, out of 433 items of medical equipment received in 1996 by Osmania General Hospital, Hyderabad, 57 items valued at Rs 8.76 crore have either not been commissioned, or are not in working condition.

In Punjab, a planning and investigation forest division was set up with its headquarters in Hoshiarpur in March 1984. Since then, it has remained in existence without any work and by 1999, wasteful expenditure on maintaining it and paying wages had totalled Rs 51.10 lakh.

In Tamil Nadu, Rs 16.44 lakh was drawn from five public-sector banks and credited to the accounts of 38 pensioners in a single year. All 38 of those pensioners were dead -- the banks had merely forgotten to appraise the treasury officers about this fact.

Elsewhere in that state, due to non-purchase of centrifugal pumps, water tenders supplied to 12 fire stations could not be used for fire-fighting, resulting in wasteful expenditure of Rs 1.04 crore. Similarly, ambulance vans were provided to 24-hour primary health centres without, however, providing drivers for the same, resulting in these vans lying idle.

Tamil Nadu has chronic water problems, right? And has been engaged in a running battle with its neighbour state for the release of Cauvery waters? So here is an example of how TN is trying to solve its water problems: The government sanctioned the construction of the Nanganjiar Reservoir Project in Palani taluk, Dindigul district, at an estimated cost of Rs 20.70 crore. This was in May 1990. Nine years later, Rs 22.50 crore had been spent, but the project remained incomplete thanks to faulty design, inadequate funds, and expenditure on unapproved works -- including Rs 27.89 lakh paid to contractors for works which existed only on paper.

In West Bengal, the services of 39 officers and the staff of the civil defence unit in Serampore were used only for 45 days during the 10 years from 1988 to 1998 -- though they were paid wages for every single day of those ten years. The services of 15 technical staff of North Bengal Medical College, Siliguri, remained idle for several years, and the government during this period spent Rs 3.14 crore on wages and maintenance of this idle staff.

Elsewhere in the state, the government invested Rs 1.76 crore, and paid wages of Rs 15.99 lakh, in the 16-DPA (dehydropregenenolone acetate) Project. The unit produced 1986kg of 16-DPA valued at Rs 1.37 crore, which remained unsold because it was substandard.

But heck, why am I complaining of this? West Bengal, you will remember, is home to the likes of the Hindustan Fertilizer Factory in Haldia. A factory with a 1,550-strong workforce, including general managers and managers and clerks and peons and a personnel department, an accounts department and maintenance department and god knows how many other departments. Construction of the factory was started in 1979, it was completed in 1986 at a cost of approximately Rs 1,200 million -- and eight years after being commissioned, it was discovered that the factory had not produced one single kilogram of fertilizer.

Or take Kerala -- where Chief Minister A K Antony, for attempting to curb wasteful expenditure, faced a crippling month-long strike recently. Here, during the period 1996-1998, the Teachers' Training Institute remained absolutely idle. The staff, however, continued to collect wages, to the tune of Rs 1.12 crore. Similarly, though training was stopped in 13 nursing schools, the staff remained in service and, from September 1996 to March 1999, collected Rs 1.54 crore by way of wages.

Or take Kerala's pride and joy, the public distribution system. Which was revamped in June 1997 into the targeted public distribution system, a joint programme by the state and the Centre, to benefit that portion of the population that exists below the poverty line (BPL).

Its functioning is a classic case study: the CAG found that the issue of 12,332 metric tonnes of rice against bogus ration cards had cost the central government Rs 1.87 crore by way of subsidy; that the state government, which had not even lifted 41 per cent of the rice allotted by the GoI from the central godowns, had actually purchased rice elsewhere, paying Rs 11.54 crore in just a one-month period; that out of 30 vehicles, costing Rs 1.55 crore, purchased with central government funds for running mobile fair-price shops in remote areas, only four were actually employed for the purpose while the other 26 were being privately employed as goods carriers.

In Hindi movies, they have this tradition of occasionally relieving the tension with a song or comedy sequence. It's a time-tested formula, so I guess I can't go wrong following it. Standby, folks, for comedy, Kerala-style: that same PDS system, in one year, paid wholesale dealers in kerosene a sum of Rs 8.24 crore as leakage allowance.

Hullo? If Rs 8.24 crore worth of kerosene leaked out in a state that is physically smaller than, say, Jaisalmer district in Rajasthan, one carelessly tossed bidi would have sufficed to blow God's Own Country into kingdom come!

Or how about Uttar Pradesh? Where they spent Rs 27.27 crore, and 18 years, working on the construction of the Lakhwar dam (Dehradun) and then suspended it because the final design had not been approved in all those years? Where two hostels, meant for scheduled caste boys and girls in Fatehpur and Saharanpur, were built at a cost of Rs 34.69 lakh and Rs 22.72 lakh, respectively, but remain unused because the social welfare department forgot to provide staff?

Where, in Banda, Lucknow and Saharanpur districts, 13 ambulance drivers collect salaries without having any work to do while elsewhere in the same districts of Lucknow and Saharanpur, 10 ambulances remained idle for over a year because of a lack of drivers?!

A few points need to be made. Firstly, the states mentioned above are not unique -- take the CAG reports for any state, any year, and you can read stories of governmental white elephants, wasteful expenditure, fraud and chicanery till your eyes bubble.

Second, even in the states I have named, the examples listed are merely the extreme tip of a humongous iceberg. I could, just as easily, have compiled from one year's CAG reports a dozen pages of such criminality, the sum involved in each being over Rs 100 crore. I picked the small sums deliberately, because I can understand, visualise, a sum of Rs 10 lakh, I can relate to it. If I hear of Rs 10 lakh being wasted, I can grasp the magnitude of that waste -- but I'm damned if I can even begin to visualise money in the hundreds of millions.

Third, in the last 30 days, Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, West Bengal and Punjab have all sent out SOS calls to the central government, warning that they are on the verge of bankruptcy, and that they need urgent infusions of funds by the truckload.

The Centre, I suppose, will have to oblige. Given the nature of the political machinery, the extent of that obligation will depend on whether the Centre perceives these states as friendly, or inimical, to the ruling NDA alliance -- but oblige, it will.

And the money the Centre will dole out to the states as emergency aid will be the money you and I pay as taxes. Tax for working, tax on the earnings for that work done, tax on the groceries we buy and the food we eat and the movies we watch to try and forget our worries for a couple of hours.

The states will happily receive these doles and continue to fritter them away on workers who have no work to do, on schools without staff and staff without schools, on hospitals without beds and equipment without use, on dams that are abandoned midway and irrigation projects without water...

And the CAG will, year after year, continue churning out his horror stories. Which most of us will not even see (and a good thing, too, in a way -- who needs an entire nation of hypertensive insomniacs?).

And though each line of those reports will underline the criminality of the states and its officials, nothing will ever get done, no action will ever get taken.

It is your responsibility, and mine, to contribute our skills and energies and sweat to the State, and then pay tax on the proceeds. We fulfil it -- and if we default, the IT authorities jump on us like the proverbial lorryload of bricks.

But is responsibility a one-way street? Does the State have no responsibilities? Is it not accountable for its misdeeds, its mismanagement?

Think about it. I, meanwhile, am off -- to rub salve on my allergic skin, do some pranayama to try and bring down my skyrocketing blood pressure, take a couple of sleeping tablets and try and sleep it off. After first filling out my tax returns for the year, that is.

Prem Panicker

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