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Develop a tax culture for better compliance

T N Pandey | October 27, 2003

In case of income taxpayers, concern is often shown about the small number of people in the tax net compared with the large population. Many factors are responsible for this.

The apathy of the government and the taxpayers towards the development of a tax culture is one of them.

Most people feel that tax is a burden and should be avoided. Taxpayers feel that they are being treated harshly and the punitive provisions in the tax laws are applied ruthlessly against them.

Hence, it is better to be away from the tax department and the number of non-filers of tax returns is increasing.

Taxpayers also feel that whatever is contributed by way of tax to the exchequer is mostly squandered away and the social responsibilities the government is expected to discharge get neglected.

There is total absence of feeling expressed by Justice Homes of the US Supreme Court that the tax is paid for buying civilisation.

The government's bad image because of its failure to discharge functions is a great disincentive for paying taxes.

A proper tax culture can develop only when taxpayers and tax collectors discharge their obligations equally well.

Many taxpayers become defiant, demotivated and disillusioned because of wrong notions held by tax collectors about their powers, the desire to pass on their part of work to taxpayers, indifference towards them and an attitude that assesses are out to manipulate figures and evade taxes. Such notions strike at the roots of a healthy tax culture.

There are several instances. Taxpayers are often asked to furnish the permanent account numbers of the people with whom they have dealings, forgetting that the tax department is still struggling with the problem of allotment of PAN and has not allotted PAN to all taxpayers.

The UTI Services, to whom the department has outsourced this work, too are failing to give PAN in 15 days.

Without a mandatory requirement to write PAN on bills, vouchers, cheques and drafts, assessees cannot be asked to give this information and be subjected to adverse inferences for defaults in complying with this direction.

Many assessing officers have wrong notions about the burden of proof in tax proceeding. It is common rule of evidence that the burden of proof lies on the party affirms it and not the party who denies it.

And yet taxpayers are asked to prove the negative. Decisions of courts and tribunals supporting this inference are being ignored.

In case of witnesses, instead of exercising the powers available under the Income Tax Act, the officers ask assessees to produce witnesses for examination for which they have no legal or any other right to compel attendance.

Assessing offices are reluctant to summon witnesses or issue commissions even when taxpayers are ready to pay the costs and offer all assistance.

Opinions obtained by assessees from experts on technical issues are brushed aside by saying "I do not agree". Supporting court decisions are discarded by saying "these do not apply to the assesses case".

The Supreme Court's decision in the McDowell's case is being applied despite reservations expressed by high courts and the Supreme Court itself about the generality of observations in the decision. This is increasing litigation much to the harassment of taxpayers.

Arbitrary standards are being applied to disallow expenses despite the court rulings that in such matters a businessman's decision is most important.

No speaking orders are being passed in many cases, leaving taxpayers confused about the acceptability of their claims.

Calling voluminous information at last moments, giving short time for compliance, rejecting requests for adjournments, pressing payment for disputed demands without considering applications for stay, delaying issue of refunds and lack of facilities for taxpayers in the income-tax offices are continuing.

Fixing responsibility for bad and indifferent work and punishment for inefficiency seem to have vanished as management tools in the tax department.

The system of inspection of the work of the assessing officers has been given up without any convincing grounds. Laws are being changed frequently. The latest instance is changes in the assessment procedure for searches.

The most radical aspect of Margaret Thatcher's administration in the UK was the attack on inefficiency in the government.

In India, there is no punishment for inefficiency. This is true for almost all departments. In that respect, the income-tax department is in good company.

Steps to change the fast deteriorating work culture have become necessary. Future depends on changing the work attitude through persuasions and deterrent measures.

It should be aimed at a healthy work environment and culture, concern for taxpayers described as clients, and a courteous, competent and efficient staff. The goal is to develop a healthy tax culture.

This way only the voluntary compliance can be ensured and the department's image will improve. These are no short cuts to this.

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