After DeMo, clueless, not cashless!

There has been much macroeconomic commentary and rhetoric about how demonetisation coupled with GST is on course to transform India into a less-cash economy and ensure greater tax compliance. In view of some recent personal experiences to the contrary, these claims sound bewildering.

In pursuit of a new dish TV connection, I was informed by the call centre of a reputed company that I could either make online payment before the installation or pay cash to the installation staff. No option of cheque or card payment at the time of installation was available.

When I handed over Rs 2,000 to the installation employee and asked for a receipt, he told us no receipts were issued physically, but I would get an SMS confirmation of installation on my registered mobile number, in a while. When I explained to him that receipts were proof of cash payment that had to be issued to me immediately as a consumer, he stared at me as if I was a dinosaur. After conferring with his boss over the phone, he again reiterated his "no receipt" stand.

Annoyed, I postponed the installation and lodged a complaint with the dish TV company's customer care, demanding a reason why receipts for cash transactions were not being issued, in total violation of law. The company didn't bother to reply and, in fact, cancelled my installation request. Here, it's not a local cable operator I was dealing with but a professional corporate organisation that has lakhs of subscribers nationwide, which entails thousands of cash transactions daily.

How come the company then refuses to issue cash receipts to subscribers as a standard practice? In the absence of cash receipts, how can tax authorities be sure that all transactions are being accounted for and the company is fully tax-compliant? What's to stop the company from under-reporting income? And most importantly, what about the rights of consumers to be issued a tax invoice and payment receipt?

Similarly, small cash payments at the retail level are routine in the cell-phone services industry, and again no receipts or cash memos are issued. Both my teenage children use pre-paid cards. They get their talk-time and data package recharged on a monthly basis against cash payment. Until last year, my sons would diligently get and hand over printed receipts to me or my wife, which we required for accounting and reimbursement. But now retailers, and even the cell-phone service company outlets, have stopped giving printed receipts claiming the recharge intimation received by pre-paid customers with transaction number is sufficient as per company policy.

Baffled by such excuses, I visited the cell-phone service company's outlet to procure receipts, but was told that physical receipts were no longer necessary and that all mobile service providers had adopted the practice of recharge intimation doubling up as an e-receipt. When I inquired what the rationale was, behind issuing printed receipts to post-paid subscribers but not pre-paid customers, there was no satisfactory response and I was asked to escalate the matter to customer care or nodal officer.

This begs the important question as to how this system of not issuing cash receipts for pre-paid recharge has become widespread? Has the telecom regulator or any law exempted mobile service providers from issuing receipts against cash payments for prepaid recharging? If not, are authorities turning a blind eye to this practice or are they simply unaware of it?

Avenue for manipulation

Sadly, this practice provides a huge avenue for manipulation of income because lakhs of cell-phone customers get prepaid cash recharges done daily for tiny amounts, and none of them get a receipt. Let's assume for a moment that these reputed mobile services companies are not generating undisclosed revenue and account for every single recharge. Yet, that hardly gives them the right to deny receipts to customers against cash received.

Moreover, it is an unfair trade practice to save on costs of issuing printed receipts and add
to their own profits while depriving the customer of his right. It can also qualify as a deficiency in service. So, why is the government not taking any steps to protect the interests of lakhs of consumers?

Indeed, this is not a phenomenon restricted to the private sector. Even public sector organisations like petroleum companies are inadvertently being unfair to the customer when it comes to receipts. Recently, petrol bunks issue printed receipts on smooth glossy paper, generated directly from fuel dispensers.

The big problem is that the print starts vanishing within a few months and consequently only blank glossy paper remains. It is impossible to use these petrol bills/receipts for accounting or reimbursements if the print fades away? Inevitably, it's the cash-paying small consumers who suffer for this lack of consideration by companies. They have to take the additional trouble of making photocopies of these bills for their expense records.

Given this scenario, it seems quite farfetched to believe that India is any closer to being a less-cash or more tax-compliant economy than it was a year ago. Perhaps, like kings of yore, our policy-makers too need to travel incognito among the common populace to do a reality check.

(The writer is a Pune-based crime novelist and filmmaker)

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