Thursday, August 13, 2009

On Tax Code, Taxman and history ...

History is mesmerizing. It is all encompassing and is there in each one of us. Most of the times of course, we neither know about it nor realize how it is affecting our present situation and decisions . I have been thinking about the western frontier of India and how the activities there since the arrival of Aryans has literally dictated what we today call –Indian History. I was planning to write about James Nicholson , Henry Lawrence and about the NWFP in the British days …..but then a number of factors made me write this post before that one.
Being a tax auditor , I was naturally following the news about the new Tax Code of India with great interest. Just in that context , my husband informed me that a taxman in Kolkata has recently discovered the grave of James B Wilson- the father of Taxation in India. Deeply intrigued, I searched out the news item on the internet and am spellbound by the odd coincident that the New Tax Law is coming exactly 150 years after the introduction of Income Tax in India by James Wilson. Yesterday was the 150th interment day of Wilson , the Scotsman who came to India, spent eight months in the heat and dust of this jewel in the crown and lies buried here at Mullickbazar cemetery. James Wilson, by the way, had other notable contributions in the form of the Economist magazine and Standard Charted Bank(then the Chartered Bank of India, Australia, China.)- both of which he founded . In India, he imposed an income tax, created a government paper currency and remodelled the whole system of finance. He is known as the man who “evoked order out of the chaos of Indian finance” after the 1857 war of independence.
In all probability as Member Finance of the Viceroy’s council (almost equivalent to Finance Minister of today) this man, during his stay in India(at Kolkata) had his office in the same Treasury buildings where my Kolkata office was. History is definitely the biggest pulp fiction ever written- or being written all the time. Imagine the fact that it took a taxman, an assistant Commissioner of Income Tax, one Mr. Bhatia to dig out the location of Wilson’s grave . Bhatia had been researching India’s fiscal history for some time to write a book on the country’s taxation history, when he came upon the reference to Wilson and his great contribution. He also discovered that Wilson, who had been offered the post of finance member of the Viceroy of India Council, by Lord Palmerston, the then British Prime Minister, in 1859, had died in Calcutta. I was glad to know that I was not the only weirdo visiting cemeteries and checking church records to look for people I have read about. It seems, Mr. Bhatia visited various cemeteries and checked out the records at Kolkata to locate this grave . At the National Library he found the gazette published on the day of Wilson’s death which said: “He died on 11th August 1860 at the young age of 55 years after suffering from dysentery… Flags were unfurled at half mast and guns were ordered to be fired for 15 minutes from the ramparts of Fort William at the time of his burial.”
The inscription on his tombstone(painstakingly restored and made legible recently with efforts of Mr. Bhatia) declares that Wilson was born on June 3, 1805, at Hawick, a small border town in Scotland, and died in Calcutta on August 11, 1860, “from the combined effects of climate, anxiety and labour within eight months after his arrival in India
The incident, though very exciting and newsworthy also reflects how indifferent we are about history of things and institutions around us. The news item informs that there was also a statue of James Wilson at Dalhousie Institute and was removed later to built the Telephone bhawan. The statue is missing – much like the numerous other monuments, manuscripts and items of invaluable historical value .
Wilson was definitely a man worth remembering and for reasons more than income tax . James Wilson’s life shows a smooth upward rising graph. Son of a wealthy textile mill owner , he was expected to join his father’s business . But as things turned out, at the age of 16, after attempting a number of other jobs James was apprenticed to a local hat maker. After only a few months, he progressed from apprentice to partner when his father bought the business for James and his elder brother William. The business thrived and by the time he was 19 it had outgrown Hawick and the brothers moved to London and continuing trading until 1831.Wilson by this time was a wealthy man, he worked hard and believed strongly, as did his early hero Adam Smith, that there was a, “Scotchman inside every man. with a universal desire to make money and a universal willingness to work for it.”
In 1843 he established The Economist as a newspaper to campaign for free trade, and acted as Chief editor and sole proprietor for sixteen years. In the early days Wilson wrote most of the content himself until handing the reins to his son-in-law Walter Bagehot. Perhaps it was inevitable that such an influential figure should consider politics as the next step in an already rich and varied career. In 1847, he was elected to Parliament as Liberal member for Westbury and within six months he was offered the position of Joint Secretary to the Board of Control for India.
The Australian Gold Rush (1851) was the catalyst for his next venture, with miners from around the world pouring into the country there was an almost overnight need for, “The common necessities of life.”Tea, coffee, rum, tobacco, and spices were all in great demand and James Wilson immediately saw the need for a new bank to facilitate this new and growing trade. On October 9, 1852, The Economist announced the issuing of the prospectus of the Chartered Bank of India, Australia and China. The Chartered Bank was later to merge with the Standard Bank (Standard Chartered Bank) and remains today a powerful force in modern global banking.
By 1859, Lord Palmerston offered the post of Finance Member of the Viceroy of India Council. Probably more out of a sense of public duty rather than a real desire to turn his back on the House of Commons he left Britain for Calcutta . There, “gigantic difficulties” awaited him as, in essence the Chancellor of the Exchequer as after the 1857 mutiny the financial health of British India was precarious .His work in India was cut short when, like many Westerners unused to the harsh climate he died of dysentery. But in the eight months of his stay he introduced a number of changes in the tax management and fiscal administration, most of which continue till date . For more than a century and half his grave was lying there in Kolkata without any care or even recognition- much like thousands of other graves across the country . Suddenly an amateur historian rediscovered the grave and also generated so much interest in Wilson’s life and work among people like me.
Strange yet true……. and this is not definitely the strangest thing history has in its store. I remember when ace shooter Abhinav Bindra won his gold medal in Olympics last year , a very innocuous Google search revealed to me another of history’s secrets lying just in front of us. From his mother’s side Abhinav is fifth generation descendant of legendary sikh warrior Hari Singh Nalva,the Commander-in-Chief of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. You may say – so what ? Now go further in the history of Hari singh Nalva and you will find that he was born to a maratha princess, Dharmabai(d/o of Kashibai) who was the grand daughter of the great and fearless Sadashivrao Bhau, Commander-in-Chief of the Maratha army in the Third battle of Panipat. If you find it strange how a Maratha lady was married to a Sikh family in those days , the answer again lies in the history . The story goes that Kashibai and her maternal cousin were left in the house of Sardar Ramdas of Majitha as her father, confident of his victory in the battle brought the two girls along but finally left them with his friend’s family . When news of the total rout of Maratha forces, the death of Kashibai’s father Sadashivrao Bhau reached them following Sikh tradition, Sardar Ramdas gave refuge to these ladies and as per the prevailing Hindu custom of marrying a daughter within the first calendar year of her father’s death, Kashibai was married off to Sardar Ramdas’ son Sardar Hardas Singh next year . Later when the daughter Dhrambai/Dharam Kaur born out of this alliance , died during childbirth , her son Hari singh was brought up and tutored by his maternal grandmother, who made special arrangements for teaching her grandchild to be a fearless administrator and an expert in archery, armoury and musketry. Naik Fateh Khan Gardi, captain of Sadashivrao Bhau’s personal guards, played a big part in teaching Hari Singh the use of mechanics-mathematics in firing artillery-muskets. Under the training of this ace shooter of that age, the man who introduced gun firing in Indian battles, Hari singh become the legendary Hari Singh Nalwa…..and five generation after him, another ace shooter was born in the family. I hope you too will now realize the fascinating twists and turns of history
History is all around us and yet, we still have people who do not believe in fairy tales and stories beginning with “ Once upon a time…..” . Sad, I would say .

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Weber’s monster and me

Musings on Why I am a Civil Servant ?
I first heard of Max Weber’s views of Bureaucracy as a student of Public Administration in my University days. The good thing about Weber’s analysis is that while recognizing the importance of bureaucracy as collective organizational structure, procedures, protocols and set of regulations in place to manage activity in large organizations and government, he also indicated dysfuntionalities that it may tend to get over a period of time. As we all know now the dysfuntionalities of bureaucracy are so apparent that the word itself has taken a negative connotation and represents delays, shirking of responsibilities and red tape for a common man. Few years after my first introduction to Weber’s analysis, I become a part of bureaucracy. Soon afterwards, a friend gifted me a book titled” Why I am Not a Civil Servant ?” . The book written by an ex-civil servant (IAS-MP Cadre) who had resigned from service as he considered the entire system so unbearable for himself, made me very angry. Not that his analysis was incorrect…but in my view , his decision was. I told very arrogantly to my friend that these are all the more reasons why good and gutsy people should join the civil services. After all if a system is malfunctioning, it need some rectification- and in this case it can only be from inside . I also remember telling him that the title of the book is very right as it is narrating the very things for which I am not here , there are higher things to aspire for . “ One taste of glory …one mouthful of sky!!” Nine years from those early days of being a bureaucrat- I am writing this blog , though still adamant on my views, but somewhat excepting the power of this giant mechanism operated by pygmies.. The particular incident is not important, neither are the players, for me the important factor in the entire experience was the way a wrong was done and how everyone involved found a right reason to do the wrong. A very senior colleague in some other context has remarked jokingly that if you are good you will be entrusted with more work, but if you are Really good, you’d find a way to come out of the responsibility. As it turned out, I was just good and not –Really good. So stuck with this particular work, I did it with full honesty and delivered what I was asked to do. Then the work was sent for a series of approvals by well, some of those who probably have forgotten how much effort such a product takes from the nameless, faceless subordinates, who are at the cutting edge of our system. Unaware of details and unwilling to take responsibility , an easy decision of diluting the entire exercise was taken. I may be accused of not understanding the constraints at that level or may be of my inability to see the so called macro picture but the example set was typical bureaucratic. What you cannot understand-ignore.

We fought and argued but to no avail. They, with years of experience , after all, have long perfected the art of seeing only what they wanted to see, which is an essential accomplishment if you want to be world’s master and not it’s victim( a la Salman Rushdie ) . It was painful when it was going through but on the hindsight one learns to accept that if sometimes you are the pigeon on others you must be the statue too.

But all are not alike. So sympathizing with my anguish at the whole affair , my former boss commented that though with time one start to accept things that cannot be changed overnight things do change ultimately. Labour and struggle do turn stones even though in the short run they may seem futile. They leave an lasting impression if nothing else and if right, this only grows stronger and stronger, and in doing so ultimately gathers enough force to effect a change in our mindset. I have realised that we only need to change our mindset to effect any change anywhere. Opinions will differ, especially in a diverse society like ours and the difference is healthy and natural. In fact when opinions start converging, we should start getting concerned.

Though soothing , these words left me thinking, if after few years I will also turn into an apathetic, cynical babu much like the ones I talk about so negatively now. Whether the Weber’s monster is finally going to kill the purpose for which it was made . . I hope and pray – that I will not. I am very sure at the moment that given another chance , I will again do the way I did …including my reactions and open admission of disappointment of decision taken by high and mighty. I do take solace in the words of Alexander Pope “ ….act well your part and there all the honour lies!” but it was indeed a bitter pill to digest .

Discouraging though it was, the whole affair was also hilarious in its own way. It was amusing how the guiding principle of bureaucracy in general remain as follows:

1. When in charge, ponder.

2. When in trouble, delegate.

3. When in doubt, mumble.

Once again, It confirmed my assertion that the system need people to raise questions and act like decision makers they once thought they will be. It is however, equally important to come out a winner in each such tussle with the indecisive self perpetuating pygmies. If not a winner , I at least hope that on every such occasion I come out what in Mahabharat Bhishma called “ Hridayen Aparajit”- undefeated in heart .

PS: I am sorry to bore my readers with this gloomy post as I usually talk about beauty and good things about life. But I need to come out of this bad mood by thinking philosophically on the issue and sometimes I have to to write in order to think .