Are we ready for GST?

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After more than a decade in the making, the countrywide rollout of Goods and Services Tax (GST) is just hours away. Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley has made it clear that there is no question of deferring the launch of the new indirect tax law on the stroke of midnight on June 30. To impart the occasion with maximum symbolism, Parliament will meet for a special hour-long session at Central Hall for the launch of the ‘One Nation One Tax’ regime. The Congress, Trinamool and several other opposition parties will stay away from the proceedings; they are accusing the ruling dispensation of ‘publicity gimmick’ in seeking to imbue the parliamentary session with the ‘tryst with destiny’ spirit of the 14-15 August midnight session in 1947. So the politicking has already begun over GST, but the main demand of opposition parties is that the country is not yet ready to switch over to GST, and that its rollout should be deferred by at least six months. Finance Minister Jaitley has argued that this is “constitutionally impermissible”, because as per constitutional mandate, the government will lose the right to collect taxes from September 15 unless there is an alternate system in place. He has also expressed the hope that the system “will smoothen out”. Seeing how our banks floundered about in the immediate aftermath of demonetisation, the Finance Minister may yet be taking a very optimistic take on the situation about to unfold. The Central government has gone on a publicity drive, but it is a moot question how far it is percolating down to traders and tax assessees on the ground. The teething troubles in a state like Assam could develop into a full-scale chaos over the near term, with barely half the business entities with required yearly turnovers registered on the GST portal. The State Finance department has claimed that Assam is ready to usher in GST, but there are complaints galore about the IT infrastructure in the State not being upto scratch, about assesses facing many hassles in uploading their details while many others are yet to receive their codes.
It has to be remembered that the GST system will operate completely online, requiring over three dozen filing of IT returns in a year. Traders with required turnover have been given a month to register in the new system since June 25, so how the State government manages the situation here needs to be observed keenly. The medium and small traders here are already a bewildered lot, considering the plethora of goods that will be brought under five taxation slabs. No wonder that pre-GST sales with knockdown prices are being advertised in several parts of the State by traders anxious to clear off present stocks. Insurance companies are meanwhile informing customers through SMS and e-mails of the necessity to clear off premiums now itself, since financial services will be taxed higher at 18 percent under GST. With many traders still in the dark about the prices of goods and their margins of profit in the coming days, it is clear that markets will be in turmoil for quite some time. Many services too will come under the tax net for the first time. Unless the State government watchdog bodies keep a sharp eye, such a chaotic situation will offer plenty of scope for unscrupulous traders to take advantage. Then there is the question of the notorious check gates in the State. Transporters have already voiced fears that online transit e-way bills will be too complicated for them to handle, what with stipulations like cancellation of such bills due to delay or change of vehicle or failure to cover a minimum distance per day. According to a section of financial experts, the benefits of GST can be enjoyed only if check gates are dismantled, given the country’s hitherto poor record in transporting goods. But how check gates will fare in Assam remains to be seen, considering the resilience with which check gates have stuck on despite Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal’s initial drive.  All central indirect taxes like excise duty, countervailing duty and service tax, along with state levies like value added tax (VAT), entry tax and luxury tax — will be subsumed in GST to help remove all market inefficiencies across India. But a flawed GST may well trigger inflation over the middle term, many observers fear, citing the experiences of several other countries. Assam, along with other States, is getting ready for another test by fire after the currency ban, and it is up to Dispur how it helps manage this painful transition in the State.
Published by The Sentinel

Family debts main cause of Indian farm suicides


Nearly 70 per cent of India’s 90 million agricultural households spend more than they earn on average each month, pushing them towards debt, which is now the primary reason in more than half of all suicides by farmers nationwide, according to an IndiaSpend analysis of various government data.

The failing economics of such farms — agricultural households in the south are most indebted — are exacerbated by additional loans that families take to meet health issues, leaving them with diminished ability to invest in farming. Outstanding loans for health reasons doubled over a decade to 2012, and loans for farm business fell by about half over the same period.

These data help understand the nature of India’s farm crisis in the light of the recent spate of farmer protests across states to demand loan waivers and better prices for their crops.

These 62.6 million households spending more than they earn had land holdings of one hectare or less, according to the 2013 situation assessment survey of farm households by the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO), the latest available data. In contrast, 0.35 million (0.39 per cent) households owning more than 10 hectares of land had an average monthly income of Rs 41,338 and consumption expenditure of Rs 14,447, thereby maintaining a monthly surplus of Rs 26,891.

Nearly 85 per cent of all operational farm holdings in the country are smaller than two hectares in size, NSSO data show. No more than a third of Indian small and marginal farmers have access to institutional credit, which suggests that loan waivers may not help them.

Andhra Pradesh has the highest share of indebted agricultural households (93 per cent), followed by Telangana (89 per cent) and Tamil Nadu (82.1 per cent). The nationwide figure is 52 per cent.

Indebtedness was listed as the primary reason for 55 per cent of farmer suicides in 2015 and more than 300,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide since 1995.

Apart from meagre farm income, rising healthcare costs increase farmers’ debt. Outstanding loans for health reasons have doubled from 3 per cent in 2002 to 6 per cent in 2012, according to a 2015 analysis of NSSO data by the National Bank For Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD). Meanwhile, loans for farm business fell by half over a decade, from 58 per cent in 2002 to 29 per cent in 2012.

Nearly half (48 per cent) of overnight trips made by millions of Indians in rural areas are for medical purposes. The corresponding figure for urban areas is 25 per cent.

More than half of India’s rural population uses private healthcare services, which are four times as costly as public healthcare, and can cost the poorest 20 per cent of Indians more than 15 times their average monthly expenditure.

“In all the farm households I’ve visited where people have killed themselves, the single largest component of family debt was health costs,” said P Sainath, Ramon Magsaysay Award winner who pioneered farmer suicide reporting in India.

Recently, Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra wrote off loans worth Rs 36,359 crore and Rs 30,000 crore, respectively followed by Punjab and Karnataka. India faces a cumulative loan waiver of Rs 3.1 lakh crore ($49.1 billion) or 2.6% of the country’s gross domestic product in 2016-17.

However, indebtedness is a symptom and not the root cause of India’s farm crisis, according to a 2007 expert group report on agricultural indebtedness. Chaired by economist R Radhakrishna, the group reported that the average farm household borrowing had not been “excessive”, and laid the blame on factors such as “stagnation in agriculture, increasing production and marketing risks, institutional vacuum and lack of alternative livelihood opportunities”.

In his 2016 budget speech, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley had promised to double farmers’ income by 2022. “We are grateful to our farmers for being the backbone of the country’s food security. We need to think beyond food security and give back to our farmers a sense of income security. Government will, therefore, reorient its interventions in the farm and non-farm sectors to double the income of the farmers by 2022,” he had said.

Subsequently, Union Minister for Human Resource Development Prakash Javadekar outlined a seven-point strategy to double farm income, which included measures to step up irrigation, provide better quality seeds and prevent post-harvest losses.

These efforts face a range of challenges. These include: Increasing costs of farm input such as seeds, fertiliser and irrigation; irrelevance of minimum support price for government procurement; absence of marketing infrastructure such as warehouses and cold storages; and the fact that 85 per cent of farmers do not have insurance.

Clearly, India’s farm crisis calls for a multi-pronged solution that addresses each of these challenges and loan waiver is only one part of it.

Published by The Sentinel
Written by Devanik Saha

Maths cannot be optional, says SEBA

Should Mathematics be made compulsory in secondary school? Bombay High Court’s recent directive on the issue has divided educationists, parents and students in Assam.
The Bombay High Court recently asked school boards (both CBSE and State boards) across the country to consider making Mathematics optional for Class X students. The High Court observed that many pupils fail the Mathematics paper and are consequently forced to drop out of school.
Mathematics is not required for many courses that students pursue after Class X. If an option is given to the students not to study Mathematics, it will be a relief for school students who are planning to pursue the Arts/Humanities or vocational streams that require no knowledge of Mathematics, the HC bench observed.
The High Court asked the school boards to consult experts on whether its suggestion can be acted on.
Officials of Board of Secondary Education, Assam (SEBA) told this correspondent that they have heard and read the news about the Bombay High Court’s directive.
“As far as SEBA is concerned, it is impossible to make Mathematics optional. There will be massive opposition from students and parents if the board takes any such initiative. Mathematics is the most scoring subject and it will be very difficult to act on Bombay High Court’s ruling,” a SEBA official said.
Some educationists, however, agreed with the Bombay High Court’s observation and said the SEBA should at least give the matter a thought.
“The subject Mathematics creates a fear psychosis or phobia among many students. At present, the standard of teaching Mathematics in many schools in the State is poor and teachers have failed to evoke an interest in the subject for students. So for many students, the subject has become boring as well as dreadful,” a former principal of Cotton Collegiate Government HS School said. On the other hand, former Principal of B. Borooah College Dinesh Baishya said that Mathematics helps develop logical and critical thinking, which is the key to one’s social and political life, and even to many professions that do not require direct knowledge of the subject.
“Diluting the syllabus is not in the best interests of students. But at the same time it must be agreed that the standards of teaching need to improve to help children shed their fear of Mathematics. The Mathematics syllabus at school level has been made unnecessarily tough and complex, for which reason many students develop a phobia against the subject. Mathematics should be made an interesting life science for students,” Baishya said.
Dipankar Barua, whose son is studying in Class IX, said the Bombay High Court’s directive should be followed. “My son is a good student and is scoring well in other subjects. But he always scores poorly in Mathematics. I am spending a huge sum on private tuition for Maths for my son. Despite that, he has not improved much. Since my son will pursue the Humanities stream after Class X, there is no point for him to sit for Maths in HSLC exam,” Barua said.
The Bombay High Court was hearing a petition from leading psychiatrist Harish Shetty, who had raised issues relating to schoolchildren with learning disabilities. The next hearing is on July 26.

Published by The Sentinel

Very Unfair to Locals

According to recent reports, the Northeast Frontier Railway (NFR) has selected a total of 51 candidates for filling up vacancies for the posts of commercial inspector and commercial clerk. These 51 candidates were selected after they completed a two-year training period as commercial apprentices at the Zonal Railway Training Institute at Alipurduar followed by a written examination. Apparently, these 51 candidates had been initially selected as commercial apprentices in the year 2015 and sent for the two-year training. What is rather shocking is that not a single one of the 51 selected candidates is from Assam or any of the north-eastern States. It is not as though incumbents functioning in these posts are required to perform duties that call for a very high level of intelligence. These are run-of-the-mill jobs that can be performed with average intelligence. It is, therefore, very surprising that not a single person from the entire north-eastern region was deemed suitable for any of these posts. On being contacted for a statement on this serious anomaly, NFR officials merely said that recruitment for jobs in the Indian Railways was done on an all-India basis, and that there was no provision for ‘region specific’ reservation of jobs. “The candidates have been selected on the basis of merit. There is no reason for controversy as everything has been done as per the rule books,” said an NFR official. No one in his senses is prepared to believe that there was not a single candidate from the north-eastern region with the required merit for fairly pedestrian appointments. It would be interesting to find out how truly ‘all-India’ the selection of the 51 candidates has been. The media should insist on a complete list of selected candidates and analyse the list in terms of recruitment from the different States of India. One can make a safe guess that the majority of the selected candidates are from Bengal. It is for such partisan modes of selection that the government of Assam and all major organizations of the State should insist on the NFR that there has to be ‘region specific’ reservations of jobs considering that the actual selections tend to be ‘region specific’ even though they are claimed to be done on an all-India basis. It will not do to tolerate pious statements of totally impartial and merit-based selections when, in actual fact, employment in the NFR, has generally been very ‘region specific’ in favour of one State and against the legitimate interests of the Northeast.

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Rattled Power department draws up action plan

Rattled by three electrocution deaths within a week during flash floods in the city, the State Power department and Kamrup Metropolitan district administration on Thursday drew up action plans on war footing to prevent such deaths in future. A high-level meeting chaired by State Power Minister Pallab Lochan Das within a few hours after electrocution of a youth on flooded Sugam Path at Zoo Road area decided to conduct a massive exercise to assess the condition of power lines and other electricity arrangements in flood-prone areas in the city. Engineers and other technical experts will plug leakages in power lines, electricity poles and other possible faults that might be causes of electrocution.
The meeting also decided to constitute a Response Team comprising officials and experts of Assam Power Distribution Company Ltd (APDCL) to take immediate action to prevent any disaster from power lines during floods in the city. The Grievances Cells of APDCL will now engage engineers to listen to grievances of citizens and take actions or advice people on steps need to be taken to prevent incidents like electrocution during floods. The 24X7 Grievance Cells will be manned by engineers in three shifts.
During the meeting, it was also decided that APDCL will soon launch a WhatsApp Group where citizens through their mobile phones can lodge complaints and upload pictures of fallen live wires or any electricity infrastructures posing threats to citizens life. Remedial measures will be taken immediately after citizens lodge complaint with the Grievance Cells and WhatsApp Group.
Minister Pallab Lochan Das, while expressing deep condolence over the death of a youth at Zoo Road on Thursday following electrocution, told The Sentinel that lapses of the Power department might have resulted in the electrocution incident on Thursday morning. He said one feeder manager and an SDO of Zoo Road division of APDCL have been put under suspension for alleged negligence of duty that caused the electrocution incident. An inquiry has also been ordered to fix responsibilities on top officials of APDCL for their lapses.
Das said there is already a general instruction to the APDCL to snap power connections in flood prone areas during heavy rains. But sources said such snapping of power connections also causes inconveniences and suffering to the people.
“There was no electricity in my area for 7 hours on Thursday as my neighbouring areas were flooded. Such long hours of power cut causes a great deal of inconvenience and suffering for my family and many others in my area. The Power department has to make a suitable arrangement so that no one suffers,” a resident of Ulubari said.

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NE to get 13 new Passport Seva Kendras

Taking note of successful functioning of Post Office Passport Seva Kendras (POPSK) in the Northeast during the first phase, the Ministry of External Affairs and Department of Posts have now decided to open 13 more POPSKs in the region. The new POPSKs will be opened in Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya. The places identified for setting up the new POPSKs include Changlang, Tirap, Dhubri, Dibrugarh, Goalpara, Karbi Anglong, Kokrajhar, Mangaldoi, North Lakhimpur, Tinsukia, Baghmara and Tura. It may be mentioned that the Ministry of External Affairs and the Department of Posts are utilizing the Head Post Offices/Post Offices in the country as POPSKs for delivery of passport-related services to citizens with the objective to extend such services on larger scale and ensure wider area coverage.

Out of 86 announced POPSKs, 52 POPSKs have become functional, including one at Silchar in Assam, under the first phase of the programme. MEA and DOP are working closely for operationalization related services at the remaining 34 POPSKs in the first phase.

MEA and DOP have now decided to open another 149 POPSKs to take the total number of POPSKs to 235 in the country, including 13 POPSKs in Arunachal Pradesh, Assam and Meghalaya.

The MEA has opened 14 Passport Seva Laghu Kendras (PSLKs) across the country including in the Northeast after May 2014. With the addition of 235 POPSKs, the total number of Passport Seva Kendras will go upto 251.

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Safety on Bhupen Hazarika Setu goes for a six

The Bhupen Hazarika Setu, popularly known as Dholla-Sadiya bridge, which was opened with much fanfare by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on May 26, has of late turned into a dangerous highway with accidents reported almost daily, thanks to bikers, selfie clickers, drunk motorists, herds of cattle and makeshift motels that have mushroomed overnight. With tourists flocking from far-flung areas, highest being on Sundays, the entire stretch of road around 20 km, including the 9.15 km bridge, has become highly prone to accidents.

A major opinion going around is that the BJP-led State government hyped the bridge as part of its one year performance even as the bridge is incomplete and will take several months more to give a pleasant and safe drive from Dholla to Sadiya and beyond. With the bridge turning into a death trap, the people of Sadiya are now coming to believe that it would have been quite appropriate had the bridge opened to vehicular traffic after six months. Voicing concern over safety of the bridge, Prof Debakanta Buragohain of Sadiya said, “When the people of Sadiya showed remarkable endurance during past several decades, the ferry services should not have been discontinued at this stage,” pointing out that uncertainty still looms large during flood as the by-pass so constructed may not withstand surging waters.

According to a source, original survey works carried out during Congress regime were defective and of superficial nature with little knowledge about major channels and vulnerable points of the mighty Brahmaputra. When in spate during heavy rains in catchment areas, the river often changes its course and opens up new channels.

As the detailed project report (DPR) was made on the basis of the survey report and Ministry of Road Transport and Highways acted on that DPR, the construction company, Navayuga Infra Projects Pvt Ltd is now unable to make any viable change without the concurrence of Ministry of Road Transport, informed the source, even as the priority was to protect the Hatiguli bund. The earlier project had no plan to safeguard the bund. With the initiative and suggestions of local people, Navayug took the precautionary steps and constructed box culverts to prevent backflow of water.

Safety and security on the Dholla-Sadiya bridge are now a major concern. Though the speed limit is restricted to 40 kmph, vehicles, including bikes, are seen plying at 90-100 km speed taking just 9-10 minutes to cover the 20.5 km from Dhola approach road. While innumerable cattle from nearby tea gardens and villages occupy major portion of the road creating severe obstacles, bikers create more hazards. Neither district administration nor Sadiya police have any control over the bridge. Sadiya police with its skeleton manpower is totally incompetent to handle such magnitude of traffic chaos on the bridge. It is dangerous to drive after dusk as street lights are yet to be installed with many bikers even squatting on the bridge itself.

The security of visitors is of serious concern now and for days to come. Villagers from neighbouring areas have started grabbing government land on the right side of Tinimile, a point where the bridge ends on Sadiya side and the approach road begins — and have overnight constructed makeshift shops. Majority of these shops are selling liquor to tourists clandestinely to earn fast bucks. While on May 26, there were just two shops selling snacks, currently there are more than 70 temporary bamboo thatched structures and increasing daily, fast turning into a big den of snatchers, anti-socials and drunkards.

According to Excise officials, despite regular raids, their effectiveness is just temporary. Sometimes they are scared of conducting raids even during daytime, let alone after dusk, apprehending backlash from the villagers. From safety point of view, Tinimile point is very vulnerable as it is close to the bridge and prone to accidents. It is reported that police personnel deployed at this point had been under attack and snatching and skirmishes have become a regular affair now. Anunachal Pradesh bound passengers and tourists have been especially targeted, waylaid, abused and their valuables snatched. These sporadic incidents might lead to tension in border areas.

These anti-social elements and rowdies are allegedly having a close nexus with local political mafias and some surrendered militants. Initially, the land was completely bare prior to construction of the bridge, having a settlement of flood-affected families comprising of mixed communities far off from Tinimile. These families have now started flocking into the area and polluting the entire atmosphere. Taking advantage of poor organized monitoring by both Tinsukia district administration and Sadiya police, the anti-social elements are getting a free run to the extent that police are even advising tourists not to venture after dusk and on Sundays!

This is the present state of affairs prevailing on the second longest bridge in Asia and longest in India, an engineering wonder on the River Lohit with potential to draw many tourists from India and abroad in future.

Published by The Sentinel