Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Passenger and the Train

He is standing anxiously on the platform for the arrival of the train. He is aware of the long journey ahead. He is checking his luggage and is satisfied that things are in order. He is verifying the ticket and making a mental note of his coach and berth. He wants to make sure that he gets into the proper coach and reaches the right berth. He rushes towards the coach even before the train comes to a full stop on the platform. With luggage in both hands, he jumps into the coach and moves fast towards his berth. He heaves a sigh of relief after placing all the luggage items below the berth. He checks the items and is now satisfied that arrangements are proper. There are others around him who are doing the same thing, may be a little differently and according to their own taste and liking. He is now seated and looks forward to the long haul with expectation and anxiety on the one side and excitement and hope on the other.

He makes every effort to keep his berth and its surroundings neat and clean during the journey. All waste items are immediately removed from his presence. Proper care is taken of the berth and the surroundings. He makes friendship with the people around him. All have their own stories and plans. Many of these are shared. Bonds develop between the co-passengers. Some invite others to visit their places and assure that all arrangements will be made by them for a pleasant trip, when their place is visited. Addresses and phone numbers are exchanged. The journey goes on. Some co-passengers get off from the train when their stations come. Other co-passengers come in and the journey continues.

All good things have to come to an end. Entire life cannot be lived and spent on the train. His station is about to come in a few minutes. He is no longer interested in making new friendships now. He is not that worried about keeping the berth and surroundings clean. He is aware that he has to move away from the train to further destinations. He picks his luggage items and prepares to get down. Waste material is thrown on the berth and near it. This berth has no use for him now. He is now concerned about the next berth in the next train. He moves to the door of the coach even before the train comes to a full stop on the platform of his destination. He gets down and moves away towards the next train and the berth in it. He does not spare a minute to look back at the berth that carried him this far and for so long. He does not look back at the train standing on the platform, that helped him come this far. His eyesight is now firmly set on the next lap of journey..... 

Indian philosophy revolves around the concepts of Body (Deha), Soul (Atma) and the Supreme being (Paramatma). A concept is often defined as "an idea of something formed by mentally combining all its characteristics or particulars". There are many schools of thought that explain the relation between these three concepts. They base their arguments on the same texts but the same texts are interpreted differently by each school. But each of the schools of thought swear by the same sources! Each of these interpretation makes interesting reading and appears to be the best when you are reading it. Ekavada (Monoism), Adwaita (Non-dualism) and Dwaita (Dualism) base their theories on the premise of the Atma and Paramatma being one, not-two and two separate entities. Much of it stands on different logical interpretations. The difference lies in the secret that all schools of thinking do not accept the same yardsticks and the force of their arguments depends on their postulates. A postulate is something that is assumed without proof or taken for granted. It is generally believed, save for rare and exceptional schools of arguments, that soul is eternal while body is not permanent. Soul changes bodies from time to time and continues its eternal journey.....

One question that crops up during such discussions is about the relationship between the body and soul. A soul lives in a body for a certain length of time. In the case of human beings such time span stretches to several years and decades. What is the bonding between the body and soul? Does not the soul feel the pain of separation from the body when it finally leaves the body forever, in which it stayed for such long periods? The above example of the Passenger and the Train is given to explain the relationship between the body and soul. Just as the passenger does not look back at the berth and the train when his destination arrives, the soul does not feel the pain of separation from the body and the surroundings. In other words, the soul does not feel attached to the body and hence there is no pain of separation.

There are many interesting questions on such topics and they are wonderfully answered through similar simple and yet satisfactory examples. Many scholars have given us gifts of such interpretations and explanations. One may not agree with some of them and may not agree entirely with many of them. But a reading and contemplation on these voluminous literature widens our own horizons. Vinoba Bahve is one such thinker who has contributed through his discourses.

Vinayak Narahari Bhave (1895-1982), popularly known as Vinoba Bhave was a Gandhian and freedom fighter. He is well known for his contributions through "Bhoodaan" movement. Many consider him as a spiritual successor of Mahatma Gandhi. He lost some popularity when he called the period of Emergency (1975-77) as "Anushasana Parva". 

Vinoba was jailed for participation in freedom movement and held in Dhule Jail in Maharashtra between January and July 1932. While in jail, he gave discourses on "Bhagavadgita" every sunday. Many jail inmates and even prison officials attended his discourses. Jamanalal Bajaj, noted industrialist and philanthropist was one of the regular participants. Sane Guruji, Marathi writer and freedom fighter kept notes of the discourses. A small book titled "Geeta Pravachan" was brought out later on which contains the summary of the discourses of Vinoba in Dhule jail. This book contains many interesting and apt examples that convey answers to questions of seekers, given in simple language and logic. Original book in Marathi language, published in 1950s with a cost of one rupee, has been translated to many indian languages as well as English. A reading of this book is indeed useful and interesting.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Widening tax base

Income tax department is making a lot of news these days. It is also in the news as well, for various reasons. The department recently won the Prime Minister's award for "Excellence in Public Administration" for providing "Easy Tax Compliance through Quality Service". Tax Information Network (TIN), Tax Deduction and Collection Account Number (TAN) and Permanent Account Number (PAN) have been quoted and repeated all over the country. Its three-lettered three-word regime of TIN, TAN and PAN is now the property of every citizen, though crores of them do not own any properties of their own. The department has yesterday given wide publicity that Central Processing Center (CPC) at Bengaluru has been advised to issue refunds up to Rupees 50,000 expeditiously. It has even been advised to make refunds up to Rupees 5,000 without adjusting the arrears of tax payable by the assesses for earlier years.

The department has also published (this is done periodically) a long list of "Tax Defaulters" as a part of its "Naming and shaming" of large tax defaulters. The third list of 18 individuals shows that the aggregate tax default of these persons is over Rupees 1,100 crores. Naming has been done, but it does not appear to have shamed anyone. What was the response to the earlier two lists is anyone's guess. One funny thing about these lists is that several persons shown in the list do not even have a PAN (Permanent Account Number), but owe tax dues of scores of crores. Old meaning for the English word "score" is "twenty". But here the score is indeed pretty high.

The department is doing wonderfully well in tax collections. Whether the big fish or whales pay their taxes or not, tax collections are rising every year due to two wonderful instruments the department has in its hands. Tax Deducted at Source (TDS) and Service Tax are enough to show higher tax recovery year after year. Service tax collection was a mere 407 crore rupees in 1994, when it was introduced. Last year it had grown to an astounding figure of 2,15,973 crore rupees! What was earlier levied on only three items has now become all-pervading and is levied on everything except a small mention of items now placed on "Negative List". When you pay for something, whether you get service or not, you are certain to get "Service Tax". Some decades earlier, it was being mentioned that the prices of commodities never increases in the "Fair Price Shops", even though the items may never be available in those shops. Now it is true of service tax! 

Lakshmi was born in a village nearly four decades ago. She did not ask for that name, but nevertheless got it at her birth. She was not sent to any school and hence is illiterate. She cannot confidently say that she is illiterate now. Volunteers of "Saksharata Andolan" taught her how to write her name and included her name in the list of neo-literates, though her reading and writing is confined to wrongly writing her name. She got married when she was probably fourteen and was the mother of two sons when she reached eighteen years of age. Lakshmi migrated to the big city as her sick husband was unable to earn and support the family of four. She started working as a domestic help in two houses to supplement her family's income. Her capacity to earn had to expand with the increasing sickness of her husband. What started as a part time house maid's life graduated into full time occupation. She works in ten houses now and starts her work early in the morning. By the time she finishes her work in the last house, it is well past noon. The work involves sweeping and mopping the floors, cleaning and washing front yards of houses, washing the dishes and washing clothes in some houses. This cycle of sweeping, mopping and washing dishes repeats in each house. Despite this, her total monthly earnings are far below the exempted tax limit for individual assesses. She gets her wages in cash at each house as the concept of TDS or service tax has not yet expanded to the domestic help industry. She may have to wait for another year or two to achieve that distinction. She was happy in her own world and never thought that she would ever be required to have a PAN or think of a tax refund. Not in this life, at least.

Someone suggested to her husband that he should insure his life as he will be benefited by taking a policy in his name. The policy was duly taken due to the force exerted by one of the insurance agents. The husband now had the policy, but did not have the income to pay the premium amounts due on the policy. The agent told the family that the policy would lapse unless premium was paid regularly. She took upon herself to pay the same from her meagre earnings. It was difficult, but she paid the amounts promptly every month.

Her husband died due to sickness, leaving her behind to educate the two sons and manage their life along with her own. She filed a claim for the amount due on the policy, an amount of one lakh rupees. The insurance company asked for various medical records etc., and she did not know what records meant. After dozens of visits to the insurance office and several months later, someone there was kind to solve her case and settle the claim. Insurance company had a rule; claim amount will be sent only to a bank account. She was now required to open an account in a bank and attach a cancelled cheque to the claim form for receiving the money. The bank told her that she needed a KYC document for opening an account. She was now running behind the agents to get an "AADHAR" card and finally got one.  One kind lady helped her to open an account in a bank and get a cheque book.

She went to the insurance company with the pass book and cheque book. The Aadhar card and the bank account was in the name of Lakshmi. But the nominee in the policy was one Lakshamma. The common local practice of adding "Amma" with the name of a woman when she reaches middle age had caused the discrepancy. Yet another account was somehow opened in the name of Lakshamma and the claim amount was finally credited to that account. Another kind lady suggested that she should put the amount in fixed deposit as it will earn interest and prevent her from using up the money. She went to the bank and got a deposit receipt for six months period. She now had some documents; Aadhar card, bank passbooks, cheque books, fixed deposit receipt and a debit cards as well! She had no safe place to keep these items. Yet another kind lady agreed to keep them at her house, but at the risk and responsibility of Lakshamma. Lakshamma tried to get the "widow pension" sanctioned to her, available under the state government scheme. She was told that she was not eligible as she had two sons who can work and take care of her in her old age!

The deposit matured and she went to renew the same.  The amount shown for renewal was lower than the maturity amount mentioned on the fixed deposit receipt. When she asked for the reason, she was told that TDS was deducted and remitted to the government, as per rules. She said she did not know what TDS was. The bank staff blamed her for not understanding the rules for TDS and not giving the required form for waiver of the same. They did not care to suggest this to her even when they knew her status in life. Now she has been advised to obtain a PAN. She has applied for PAN. She will then have one more document to be handed over to the kind woman, for safekeeping at her risk and responsibility. She has to file a return after getting the PAN. She may have to digitally sign the return and submit on-line return. The department would then consider refunding the amount deducted as TDS.      

There is another case of Parvati, a well educated woman who served an organization for several years and sought voluntary retirement fifteen years ago. Her income level marginally crosses the minimum taxable amount. Bank deducts TDS on her pension and small amount of interest she gets and remits to the government. She files returns and gets refund every year. She suddenly received an e-mail last year that she was due more than 10,000 rupees of tax on a return filed five years ago. All refunds due since then are adjusted to this overdue amount. She is unable to meet someone and explain her case as now everything is to be done on-line and computers do not have a face and a heart. The department is overworked in publishing the list of naming and shaming scheme. She is resigned to her fate of losing the entire amount. The department's order of refunding up to 5,000 rupees without adjusting the amount to past dues does not benefit her.

Those who are due crores of rupees in tax arrears have become untraceable and vanished into thin air. Even if they are available, there is no progress in recovery of their dues. In a country of three crore taxpayers, 17 crore people have PAN. Many have been successful in obtaining multiple PAN to defeat the tax net. When the number of PAN holders increased by 175 percent, tax payers number increased by only 17 percent. Banks deduct TDS by default. Banks are helpless because the systems rule them; they do not rule the systems. It is the duty of the Lakshmis and Parvatis to know the rules, on-line working and digital filing. But, Lakshmi and Parvati can draw solace from the fact that have helped widen the tax base in the country. 

Lakshmi and Parvati are now in possession of valuable documents and proud tax payers. Lakshmi does not have a proper hut of her own but cannot vanish like those on the "naming and shaming" list. She can be found in any of the ten houses where she works each day. Big defaulters have the last laugh and the department will continue to win awards and accolades. 

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Two Grandfathers; two approaches

She was quietly sitting there, watching her daughter taking part in the parade at school held on the occasion of "Grandparents Day". There were about 50 children in the parade and there were parents as well as grandparents. The parade concluded and all visitors moved to the area serving refreshments. We were on the same table now, sharing cup cakes and fruits. "Did your grandparents also attend such an event when you were in school?", I asked.

She was surprised at the question, but replied with a smile. "There was no celebration of "Grandparents day" in the days when I was in school", she said. After a moment she added, "I wish there was one".

"Do you have any memories of your Grandfather?" was my next question.

"Oh, I have many fond memories of both my granddads", she replied enthusiastically.

"Can you recall any of them?", I asked. What she recalled is in her own words.


My maternal grandfather was a well known writer and social worker. He was associated with many organizations working at different levels. He would be busy, attending some event or the other every day. Whenever he was at home, there would a number of visitors. When we visited his house and he was free from all other activities, he had time for us, his grandchildren. He appeared very strict in his dealings with others and initially we were not very free with him. As we started growing up, we understood him better. He always dressed in white and was simple in his habits. He was also a very good speaker. When he spoke in the meetings and functions, there would be pin drop silence. As kids we did not understand what all he spoke, but it made us feel happy. His way of life taught us discipline in our daily lives. Towards the latter part of our association with him, we were more relaxed and played with him. 

He was a good cards player and allowed us to play with him. Children being associated with a card game was not liked in those days, but his view was different. He was firm in his conviction that any game on its own is not bad at all. It becomes bad only when betting and wagers were allowed to creep in. He held a view that playing cards sharpens one's brain and is good for growing children. Rules to be followed during the game were announced at the beginning and we were taught to follow the rules strictly. It was difficult to win while playing with him. But occasionally we won a game and it made us very happy. We later realized that at times he would deliberately let go a card needed by us to enable us to win a game. 

My paternal grandfather was a teacher and lived in a distant place. We saw him when we visited his place or when he visited us. He was a master storyteller and had a story for every occasion. There was never a dull moment when he was around. He had a joke or anecdote for all seasons. He was comfortable with any age group. Once I cooked a meal and served him. I wanted to know how he felt about it. I knew it was not like what my mother or my grandmother cooked. He silently had the meal and did not say anything. I was excited and asked him about his assessment of my cooking. "You have passed in first class. I gave you 60 per cent marks", he said. "When will I get more marks?", I asked. "You keep on improving and you will get higher marks", he said. With the urge to get better marks I took more interest in cooking. Once he gave me 90 marks and I was very happy. "Grandpa, when will I get hundred per cent?", I asked. " The maximum you get is 90 percent. Your mother gets 95 per cent.  Full marks are only for your grandmother!", he said smilingly.  

He taught me some popular games played in the villages. One of them was "HuliGhatta" or "Tiger and the goats". There were four tigers and goats used in the game. The goats have to restrict the movement of tigers to win. Tiger has to jump and kill goats to win. He would always win, irrespective of whether we chose to be tigers or goats. Once I told him that my other grandfather let go cards to enable us to win. "I want you to win on your own without any outside support. With practice you will win one day against me as well. Concentrate and practice hard. You will succeed", he said. He added mischievously, "If I let you win once, it will be easy for you thereafter. Once you start winning, you will never play with me!" 

"Which of the two approaches was better, allowing you to win occasionally or making you win on your own?", I asked.

She thought for a moment and replied. "I feel both approaches were good in their own way. One believed in a small dose of encouragement to motivate to do better. The other approach taught that nothing came easy and one has to strive hard to achieve anything in life. I have learnt from both approaches and use it alternately to suit the occasions."

As we moved into the parking lot to board our respective cars, she looked back and said, "The two approaches were the two faces of the same coin. Weren't they?"

Instead of replying her question, I smiled and said: "Your grandson or granddaughter may give you full marks for cooking!"

I tend to agree with her view that both approaches of the grandfathers were two faces of the same coin.  Do you?