Ease of doing business: the ground reality

It is heartening to note that India has moved up 30 places in the World Bank's 'Ease of Doing Business' ranking. But how do common people feel, not to speak of GST worries for small businesses? As anecdotal evidence, I would describe three recent personal experiences to illustrate the ground reality.

The first is about the Income Tax Department. I submitted my income tax return for AY 2017-18 on October 26. Surprisingly, I received a message on my cell-phone on October 30, saying: "Refund for Ack No: 52xxxx16 for AY 2016-17 has been issued by CPC. Kindly check the status on http://nsdl.com after 3 days. From: DM ITDCPC, 30/10/17, 11.00 AM". This was a gross mistake. I had already received the refund for the said acknowledgement number directly in my bank account on November 24, 2016.

So, no question of getting that refund again. I sent an email to the e-filing department and got a reply which did not admit any mistake, but simply told me that my assessment for AY 2017-18 was yet to be completed. After a few days, I got an email containing the assessment order for AY 2017-18 which showed that I should get a sizeable refund. I clearly mentioned on my tax return (as in earlier years) that any refund should go directly to my bank account and gave the relevant details.

Surprisingly, on November 14, the refund cheque was handed over by a courier to the darwan of our apartment building. There was no intimation (by email or SMS) that a refund cheque was on the way to my home address. We were home but the courier did not bother to get my signature on delivery. We could have been abroad, which we are 3-4 months a year. In that case, the cheque could have been misplaced by the darwan and the validity period of the cheque would have expired. In either case, it would have been a big hassle to get the refund cheque issued again.

My question: who gave the authority to the Income Tax Department to send the cheque (of Rs 33,000) by courier to my home address after I had clearly opted for direct bank deposit, and that too by such an irres-ponsible courier who does not even bother to check the identity of the receiver and get the signature of the addressee on delivery.

The next is about India Post. I have an NSS account with the Rash Behari Avenue, Kolkata, Post Office for many years. Presumably, because the Postal Department does not want to do the extra work, these NSS
accounts are not being migrated to the postal
computerised system and the department is asking account-holders to close the accounts at the earliest. Of course, there is no official circular to that effect.

Accordingly, I submitted documents for closing the account to the post office on October 27 and the file was duly sent to their head office (Sarat Bose Road PO) for necessary action. Three weeks have passed. The R B Avenue postmaster is now asking me to visit the head office. He told me that in a couple of earlier cases, the depositors had to run around to expedite the process. Otherwise, he had no idea when I would get my money back. Apparently, the onus is on the depositor who now has to pay the penalty by spending extra time and effort for keeping his hard-earned money with the government.

The third relates to a private sector company. I had a broadband internet connection from Airtel that I wanted to terminate. I served them the notice of termination by email on October 19 and gave them two days' time to deactivate. Meanwhile, I calculated my dues on a pro-rata basis up to October 22 and paid so that there are no outstanding dues at the time of termination. In their reply, they said: "Monthly rental on your account will not be charged from the date deactivation request is raised, that is from October 21."

Then, on November 13, to my surprise, I received a bill of Rs 309.66. I wrote back: "I am NOT going to pay any amount as I cannot be held responsible for any services after October 21, 2017... If you still insist on payment, I will take it up to the appropriate authorities and media" Within a day, I received an email reply that they had reversed the charges and I will not have to pay anything.

Pros and cons

What should we conclude from these incidents? First, there have certainly been some big improvements, such as the income tax assessment getting completed and refunds being made within 2-3 weeks, unlike in the past when one needed to visit the local ITO's office and pay 'speed money' to babus - otherwise, files could not be traced.

Second, there still exists a lack of accountability on the part of officials (in both public and private sectors) as they are careless (like sending wrong cell-phone messages, couriering cheques instead of direct deposit to bank account) or are not bound by any fixed time-table to complete the task (as the PO episode indicates) or try to use false pretexts to fatten the coffers of their company (as in the Airtel episode).

Third, some redress can be achieved if the person at the receiving end is willing to take the trouble of writing to the proper authorities. Unfortunately, in a country where millions of people do not have the education or the information/resources to fight official harassment in different forms, the perpetrators know they can get away without facing any penalty. Worse still, the whistleblower may get sacked instead of negligent officials, as the recent much-publicised case of gross mistreatment of an airline passenger showed.

(The writer is a former professor of economics, IIM, Calcutta)

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