Indian salary-earners, especially those paying highest per cent of income in taxes have very little voice and aren’t expected to ask for much in return for their tax rupees. Most western countries where I have been a taxpayer for the past couple of decades had complex structures of direct (individual Income) and indirect (sales and service) tax structures, but for this writeup I want to focus on individual income-tax.
In western societies, the concept of “tax dollars at work” and “accountable to taxpayers” is taken rather seriously with governance visible and accessible starting at the lowest levels of government – be it local schools, roads or public health service. While high net-worth taxpayers aren’t provided special accommodation, those paying higher taxes do seem to have a greater voice. For example, in the US, school districts with residents paying higher property tax are better governed, with facilities commensurate with their budgets that are clearly visible and accountable to local taxpayers who engage in administering school boards.
The accountability at the top of the administration, like a senator or congressman (equivalent of our MPs and MLAs) is equally transparent and visible. Years ago, when I had a question on my pending naturalization application, I shot an email to the local senator, whose aide called me within a few days to say they had initiated a “congressional inquiry” with the concerned government department. The aide called me back after a couple of weeks to confirm that my issue was indeed resolved. These instances of “taxpayer’s dollars at work” are routine and expected. Now, imagine you sending an email to your local MP or MLA about an issue, and expecting a response.
Fast forward to “Digital India” where I now find myself after relocating to be around for aging parents. After moving back, I took up a global role with a multinational. For my contribution to the economy, the Income Tax department has been awarding me with a “Silver Certificate of Appreciation” for the past couple of years. For those curious, the Government of India, in its infinite wisdom, issues those paying an annual tax of Rs 1-10 lakh a bronze certificate, and to those pay between Rs 10-50 lakh a silver-certificate; and those paying taxes between Rs 50 lakh and Rs 1 crore a “gold” one.
I scratch my head wondering about government services “silver” taxpayers like me can expect in return for the lakhs I pay in IT, property-tax, and GST. Our son, like millions of other kids, goes to a private school with no government aid. I don’t expect to patronize the overstretched public health system, thanks to my medical insurance and corporate health-package. This leaves the basic public services that government is expected to provide.
For instance, after the street in front of my home was dug up for months for some public drain-work, I sent several tweets, emails and calls to the local counselor’s office that went unanswered as to be expected. Only an impending local election miraculously speeded up the work.
And then there is a matter of a long pending issue with a land registration that my father had been struggling with. After returning to India, I took over the matter and filed a Writ Petition in Karnataka’s High Court. It has been nearly two years since that judgement and the casefile has been stuck in the desk of some Babu in the state’s revenue department. Several RTI requests have gone into a black hole. Leave alone the equivalent of a congressional inquiry, I probably must bribe someone-known-to-someone in the Revenue Department to even get an appointment to meet a local official, or to know the status of the pending file.
As a salaried taxpayer, I cannot avoid or evade lakhs in direct-tax payments to government coffers. In the land of Mahatma Gandhi, I guess the government officials expect taxpayers like me to consider direct tax payments to be yet another “selfless action, as a source of strength.” But quoting Gandhi again, “It is humanly impossible to be selfless. As a matter of fact, human beings are inherently selfish.” And that’s perhaps why my expectations of expedient government service are not unreasonable.