Vaibhav Aggarwal, a financial analyst with a Gurgaon-based private firm, is an ordinary individual.
But for millions of salaried middle class citizens in the country, he is a hero.
The 31-year-old is the one who mobilised around 240,000 online petitions against the NDA-government's proposal to impose tax on EPF withdrawals announced in 2016 budget. On Tuesday, Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley withdrew the decision following widespread protests from millions of private sector employees.
A good part of the credit for voicing their concerns goes to Vaibhav whose online campaign (through change.org) instantly caught nationwide attention, including that of the policymakers.
But Agarwal doesn't want to be portrayed as a hero. Although he wanted to react against the budget proposal to tax the life-savings of the salaried class, he never imagined this would turn out to be such a massive campaign at the national level, Vaibhav told Firstpost in an interview on Tuesday. It just happened.
"I get outraged but I never thought of taking any action. But something spurred inside me that day," he said.
Born and brought up in a middle class family, savings and the importance of it is not new for Vaibhav. "This move of the government would have just wiped out the salaried class of the country. They do not have the guts to go after the rich and the industrialists, and are burdening the already-burdened."
On 29 February, Vaibhav drafted a petition on Change.org which would eventually change the lives of 16 lakh salaried people of the nation for the better. "My friends were also angry but it was the usual response of the working class where you go on with your life. But when I showed them the numbers they went berserk," Vaibhav said. The finance analyst prepared an Excel sheet and uploaded it along with the petition which calculates the amount of tax that one will pay at the time of EPF withdrawal.
The reaction to the petition was nothing Vaibhav had expected. Once he filed the petition, he checked its progress constantly. "It had some 30 to 40 shares because I told my friends and colleagues about it and I did not expect more than that." Vaibhav chose to file the petition as he had seen how it had made a difference on a separate but equally important issue — net neutrality. The petition, launched on change.org by Kollam (Kerala)-based Sandeep Pillai in December last year, was supported by 375,000 people online, and was one of the campaigns that forced the government and the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India to re-examine the issue.
By 2 March, Vaibhav's petition had garnered more than a lakh signatures. "People told me that's a massive number."
"The petition picked up like wildfire because it resonates with every salaried person who is already burdened with multiple taxation like income tax and indirect taxes. The government's decision to tax EPF was a draconian move and a killer blow."
On 2 March, country lead of change.org, Preethi Herman had said, "Vaibhav's petition has drawn one lakh signatures in just two days. This is one of the most viral petitions on change.org in recent times. We hope that the finance ministry responds positively to the concerns of all those who have signed this petition." And it did.
The government decided to withdraw their plan to tax the corpus accumulated by investing in the EPF. As Jaitley said in the Lok Sabha on Tuesday: "In view of representations received, the government would like to do a comprehensive review of this proposal and therefore I withdraw the proposal."
Jaitley with his Budget 2016 had scored some brownie points with its increased focus on issues concerning rural segments and farm-sector but, his move on EPF tax changes, which will directly impact millions of salaried class, was enough to spoil all those positives and almost boomeranged.
Vaibhav told Firstpost that the government's decision would only make the rich richer while the working class slogged under already-high tax burden. He added that returns on annuity products have been poor as compared to other fixed income instruments based on historical data. "This is a draconian act and will be a killer blow to already tax burdened salaried class which pays 30% income tax plus 30% taxes in indirect form i.e customs, excise, service tax etc."
The Central government's idea while proposing taxing EPF was that it would push people to save more. "When 18-year-olds can vote and decide the regime that rules the nation, won't a 58-year-old know how to save their own money? If you want people to save more then please remove taxes from fixed income instruments like FD also. It is a little surprising that long term ELSS/MF investments are not having any income tax but there is a tax on bank FD. A lot of money will flow into the NPA ridden PSU banks if the tax is removed on bank FD."
"Government is trying to ape the western nations and especially the US, but that won't work in a nation like ours. Ninety percent of my peers, who are financial experts, were very angry. Budget is anyway not easily understood in this country and add to that such clauses. Where will the common man go after paying all these taxes?"
So does Vaibhav feel like a celebrity after his petition forced the government to rollback its decision? Not really, says the 31-year-old. "I am the same guy. I just don't want to give away my life's savings to corporates," Vaibhav concluded.