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BJP's refusal to tax rich farmers shows party lacks courage to rise over vote bank politics a la Congress

The Sunday Express on April 30 carried a news item with the headline: “Congress: Farm tax talks expose Modi govt’s anti-farmer mindset." The report said: “The Congress on Saturday accused the Centre of 'backstabbing' farmers by talking about levying a tax on their agricultural income.”

Finance minister Arun Jaitley. AFP

Finance minister Arun Jaitley. AFP

The report quoted Congress veteran and the leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha Ghulam Nabi Azad saying: “The complete apathy and insensitivity of the government, which is trying to impose tax on farmers through the backdoor is exposed by the fact that while finance minister Arun Jaitley tried to contradict NITI Aayog member Bibek Debroy’s proposal, the CEA (Arvind Subramanian) wholeheartedly supported taxing farmers.”

Azad added, “All this talk was aimed at testing the waters and creating an environment to impose a tax on farm income.”

The Congress which has practised vote bank politics for decades — but it currently finds itself bereft of any vote bank — is clearly itching to find an issue to take on the BJP at a time when the saffron party’s stars are ascending. But the BJP, it seems, is not going to oblige the Congress. It is as firmly committed to vote bank politics as the Congress is.

Despite the Congress leader’s skewed argument, the fact remains that both the politicians, Azad and Jaitley are on the same side and both the economists — incidentally, both are on the payroll of the government — are on the opposite side of these two politicians.

This difference is because both the economists are only speaking in terms of national interest; they believe, if India has to prosper, bad politics must not be allowed to triumph over good economics. But for the politicians, irrespective of whether they belong to the BJP or the Congress, national interest can be sacrificed at the altar of partisan politics.

Congress followed this dictum for decades that it was in power at the Centre and in the states. The only difference now is that the BJP has replaced the Congress at the helm of national and state politics.

Both the parties have used poverty of the marginal farmer as the ruse not to tax the agricultural income. But the political leaders conveniently gloss over the fact that those who ask for the taxation of the agricultural income — Debroys and Subramanians — do not want the marginal farmer to be taxed; they want those agriculturists who live in palatial houses, ride luxury cars and go on expensive foreign jaunts not to be able to escape taxation just because their income solely derives from agriculture.

As per the records, in 2015-16, an estimated 2,746 individuals and entities had declared agricultural income of at least Rs 1 crore each. Is there any logic why these individuals and entities should not be brought under the purview of taxation?

It is nobody’s case that an overwhelming majority of farmers who barely make both ends meet should be brought under the tax net. As such, as per the records, in 2012-13, India’s 90 million agricultural households had an annual average earning of Rs 77,112. These households would be automatically excluded from the purview of the income tax. But what about those who show their annual agricultural income as Rs 1 crore or more? Should they also enjoy the income tax exemption?

Leave individuals alone; what is a greater irony is those multi-millionaire companies which engage in agricultural activity are also benefitting from the "no farm tax" rule. A Biju Janata Dal MP, Bhatruhari Mahtab, said in Parliament: “What is quite known is that there are more than 4 lakh taxpayers claiming exemption from agriculture income in the assessment year 2014-15. The biggest were seed giants like Kaveri Seeds — which claimed Rs 186.63 crore exemption and made a profit of Rs 215 crore before tax and multinational Monsanto India, which claimed Rs 94 crore as exemption from agricultural income and earned Rs 138 crore profit before tax.”

"Not taxing the agriculture produce of the farmers is one thing but not taxing the companies who are earning thousands of crores of rupees? Individual farmers or companies farming more than 50 acres, they are given agricultural income exemption. It makes no sense,” Mahtab said.

Subramanian had made the same point when he said that a distinction must be made between the rich and poor farmers while taking a call on taxing agriculture income. Debroy echoed the same sentiment when he said that the government must decide the threshold over which an agriculturist will have to pay tax on his income.

Debroy made a specific suggestion: “Whatever is the threshold on personal income side on urban side, should be exactly the same on rural side.” He said that there should be no artificial distinction between urban and rural income.

The KN Raj committee in 1975 and Kelkar Committee in 2002 had made similar recommendations. The latter, in fact, had made a specific suggestion that states should be persuaded to pass a resolution under Article 252 of the Constitution authorising the Centre to impose tax on agricultural income; the states ought to have no objection as the stipulation was that all such taxes collected by the Centre would be assigned to the respective states. That would have taken care of Jaitley’s excuse that the Centre was not entitled to levy tax on agricultural income.

Dr BR Ambedkar, for whom both BJP and Congress governments seem to have high regard, had also supported taxing agricultural income. He enunciated his view on the basic principle of taxation of general income: income tax is levied on the recognised principle of ability to pay; those having income below a certain minimum level are exempted from tax payment; same should be the case with the agriculture sector. There should be no difference in the method of levying a tax on income from agriculture or business, he had said.

But the Congress government refused to pay heed to the advice because it knew that the rural rich have a great sway over the "rural vote bank". Taxing the rich farmers would mean alienating them and losing their political support. The congress, which had thrived on vote bank politics, did not have the courage to rise over partisan interest for the sake of the larger national interest.

The BJP government is turning out to be no different. Despite its hype on nationalism, it has no qualms in sidelining nation’s interest to buttress the party interest. It crows about the need to augment the nation’s resources. But it ignores the call to tax agricultural income to mobilise additional resources.

According to a report by Kavita Rao and DP Sengupta, economists at the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy, in 2007-08 alone, taxing agricultural income at par with other incomes would have yielded revenue of around Rs 50,000 crore. Imagine how much more revenue would be generated today, with the increasing mechanisation and productivity in the large firms.

The BJP government is also making a great deal of noise about black money. It surely knows that many rich businessmen and politicians in our country are laundering their black money using the pretext of the income from agricultural land. The modus operandi is for them to maintain large farms. The reality is that agricultural income being outside the tax ambit has resulted in large-scale tax evasion with a lot of non-farm income being shown up as farm income.

But the BJP government of today knows, as did the Congress in its heyday that it could not afford to alienate the big farmers who control the vote bank. That explains why Jaitley was quick to refute Bibek Debroy so that any talk of taxation of agricultural income is nipped in the bud.

Clearly, the BJP is proving to be same as the Congress: for both, considerations of vote bank politics take precedence over national interest.


Published Date: May 01, 2017 15:24 PM | Updated Date: May 01, 2017 17:30 PM

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