Amit Varma is a writer based in Mumbai. He worked in journalism for over a decade, and won the Bastiat Prize for Journalism in 2007. His bestselling novel, My Friend Sancho, was published in 2009. He is best known for his blog, India Uncut. His current project is a non-fiction book about the lack of personal and economic freedoms in post-Independence India.
This is the latest installment of my column for Mint, Thinking It Through. It is an elaboration of my concerns behind my ongoing series, Where Your Taxes Go, and I’d like to thank all the readers and bloggers who have sent me links for that. Keep them coming, and keep expressing your outrage on your own blogs as well.
These are good times for Unani. In his latest budget, the honourable P Chidambaram allocated Rs. 563.88 crores for the Department of Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homeopathy. I kid you not, I am not making this up for your satirical amusement. That departments exists. And you work your ass off, and make sacrifices, so that it can be funded. You and your maidservant.
On my blog, I have a section called “Where Your Taxes Go,” where I document strange instances of how our taxes are put to use. There is much there that is trivial and amusing—a moustache allowance for a havaldar in Lucknow, compensation for a bank employee mistakenly declared dead, salary for an 11-year-old teacher, relocation of monkeys from New Delhi to MP (only Rs. 25 lakhs). There is also much there that underscores the irresponsibility of our politicians—toilet refurbishment allowances for Jharkhand legislators, parliament hold-ups that cost 20k a minute, the 90 lakh free TVs that the DMK promised in Tamil Nadu to get elected there. Most of us are so used to government wastage that we shrug this off. “Pata hai yaar,” we say together in a gruff chorus of a billion nonchalant voices. “So what is new? Gorment is like this only.”
I feel outraged, though, angry and helpless. I never used to bother about such wastage earlier, largely because I had built a mental wall between the money that I pay as taxes and the money that the government spends. It was almost as if they were two separate things, and there was an endless supply of the latter. As a college kid, I am ashamed to admit, whenever I saw a worthy cause that needed support, I saw virtue in government money heading that way. It never struck me then that this money had a cost, and I never thought about who bore that cost.
Indulge me for a moment: take out a handkerchief and write down the taxes you have paid since you began working. List out all the things you would buy if 90% of that money was still with you. Consider, if everyone else did this, how much money would go into the economy, and the vast number of jobs created by this. All the people in those jobs, better off than they would be otherwise, would then be earning money and spending it. Think of the virtuous cycle that would then result. That is the cost of that money. Now put that handkerchief in the laundry and use a notepad next time.
That old saying about death and taxes being inevitable equate the two, which, as libertarians never tire of pointing out, is unfair for one reason: you are not dead one-third of every year. But if you are a typical Indian taxpayer, you pay more than a quarter of your income in taxes. For more than three months of the year, your salary goes to the government. (Sounds like part-time slavery, doesn’t it?) If you are reading this article on its date of publication, consider that you haven’t started working for yourself yet this year. That is still a few days away.
Indeed, it could be a lot more than just a few days away, because my calculation is based on your probable income tax. That is not where the matter ends. Every single thing you buy in the supermarket or the bookshop has taxes levied on it. You cannot spend your money anywhere without a chunk of it going to the government, indirectly or otherwise.
And this is not just the case with you, an educated, reasonably well-to-do reader of Mint [or India Uncut]: it is the case with every Indian. My maid, for example, may not pay income tax, but large chunks of every purchase she makes go to the government. Whenever she buys pulses or rice or soap and schoolbooks for her children, she is helping to fund the government’s activities, including moustache allowances. If she realised the extent to which she is being robbed, she would be rather upset at Sania Mirza asking the government to allot her land for a tennis academy, or Amitabh Bachchan getting tax relief on his KBC earnings of more than 50 crore. My maid bears their burden.
Now, I am not suggesting that we pay no taxes, despite the fact that they involve coercion. We need a government, and the government needs money to spend on maintaining law and order, providing public services and so on. But most of our taxes are simply wasted—I shall elaborate on the pointlessness of most government spending, even when well-intentioned and seemingly sensible, in my next column – and I wish we protested more at this waste. Not only is this money badly spent, but it would have been better spent elsewhere, and would have done more good for the economy as well as for us.
And remember, I am not just speaking of us decadent middle-class folk, but also my maidservant and her family, living a precarious existence in the slums of Mumbai, funding Unani with her backbreaking work. Isn’t that simply criminal?
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