x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

An incorruptible tax officer and India's forgotten honour

Memories of proud honesty in public service many decades ago make a melancholy contrast with the corruption of modern India.

The announcer was yelling. "Khabardar! (Be aware!) The income tax officer will be visiting Tandaliawala on September 1, 1946. All shopkeepers should meet him at the local police station to pay their annual taxes."

In the 1940s, when newspapers had not percolated to the small towns of India, and television was still unknown, public notifications were made through a government announcer called a dhandori. He was always selected for his sonorous, loud voice.

The dhandori visited markets and beat a massive drum to rivet the attention of the shopkeepers. Then he yelled the public notice. Finally he beat his massive drum again, to signify the end of the notification.

During those years of British India, shopkeepers did not have to fill in any forms to pay their taxes. Once a year the income tax officer (or ITO, as he was known) from Lyallpur (now Faisalabad in Pakistan) visited small towns like Tandaliawala in the Punjab (also now in Pakistan).

There were no hotels in these one-horse towns. The ITO camped at the local police station, which had rooms earmarked for these visiting government officers.

On the appointed day, shopkeepers queued with their cash receipt books to declare their sales. The ITO would levy a tax of about 5 to 7 per cent on sales. The money was paid in cash to him and a receipt was issued.

In 1946, I had just finished my accounting exams and had set up as an income tax practitioner. On the day of the ITO's visit, I would set up a temporary office in the police station compound to advise my clients. I would charge a fee of 50 rupees for finalising a client's accounts.

Most of the shopkeepers were simple, straightforward traders who paid their taxes and left. But there were some clever ones too. I can still remember that day when a bunch of four shopkeepers bypassed me to meet the ITO directly.

These merchants had the temerity to offer him a bribe, provided he let them off from paying taxes.

The livid response of the tax officer made him a folk hero in Punjab state. He yelled at the puny shopkeepers, "Are you trying to bribe me? You should be ashamed. I will not deal with you. I will instruct my orderly to lock you up in jail right now!"

Within a few hours, the anger of the ITO was the talk of the town. When the four petrified culprits came to me for counsel, I refused to plead their case. In the following months they made many miserable trips to Lyallpur, to seek the forgiveness of the ITO.

At the time Tandaliawala was a small town, and did not have any good restaurants. Since I dealt with the ITO professionally, I invited him to accompany me to my home for lunch.

He refused the invitation, saying that my hospitality could be misconstrued by shopkeepers. So he and his orderly ate a spartan meal at a rudimentary cafe just outside the police station.

In another case, also in 1946, the president of the local municipality was concerned about a low level of collections known as the "octroi". This local tax was levied on goods coming into the town for sale. Farmers from surrounding villages brought crops - wheat, maize, chick peas, cotton and others - in by bullock cart, paid the octroi and then sold their harvests in the market.

The suspicion was that some officials were preparing octroi invoices for the proper amounts and collecting the tax, but were later altering the carbon copy of the invoice, showing a lower amount, and pocketing the difference.

At the request of the municipal authorities, I reviewed all of the transactions over a period of a few months and concluded that there was no defalcation, and no grounds to suspect the integrity of the officials. The tax collections had been low due to a weak crop.

Now, when I observe the erosion of integrity in public life in India at all levels, I wonder why honesty in public affairs is evaporating. The tragedy is that most instances of corruption occur among the rich and powerful, not among the have-nots.

As the saying goes, a fish rots from the head. If simple policemen, bureaucrats, clerks and managers emulate corrupt leaders, I dread the future of our society.

All of us are more prosperous now than we were 66 years ago. Why, then, are greed and graft overtaking us?

 

Hari Chand Aneja is an 90-year-old former corporate executive who now keeps busy with charity work