Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Autobiography of an Another Yogi

Today, I woke up very very early. At 7:10 am. Thanks to the kind-hearted soul who banged my door as he ran to the sports complex for the morning Yoga. In a jiffy I ripped off my shirt, the one in which I dozed off last night watching a movie, and groped for my t-shirt in the darkness. It was there exactly where it was 56 days ago, under the pile unread newspapers, scissors, a DVD which I rented three weeks ago, the charger of my phone which I dumped two weeks ago and ear phones of my present phone. Despite the risk of being late, I took a moment to feel proud about how systematic, orderly and organized I am. Not a single molecule moves from its preordained position. Time seems to have no effect on them. I smiled. It feels good to start the day on a positive note.

I stepped out and observed a sea of OTs dressed in the dark blue academy jackets. It reminded me of The Matrix. I was the only one without a jacket. It then occurred to me that it was cold. I cursed the vagaries of weather due to man-induced changes in the environment. How on earth should I know that it would be so cold in the morning? The last time I went to Yoga, the temperature was 15 degrees higher, a little humid and the sky was cloudy. I never realized that such huge difference existed between the mornings of monsoon and winter.

When I reached the sports complex, I had same effect on my friends which George Bush wanted on Iraq, shock and awe. Depending on their respective academic, social and religious indoctrinations, analysis and conclusions ranging from End of History to End of the World emerged. I sheepishly smiled and wished them thinking it would divert their gaze. It ended up as an exercise in futility.

I entered the Yoga room. The mats were new. May be they were bought to cater to the new batch of probationers who arrived last week. Amidst the melee of probationers spreading their mats and settling down, the Yoga instructor sighted me. He adjusted his glasses and looked if it was really me. On confirmation, he had the same look on his face which a bollywood father has in the climax when he meets his son lost in the opening reels of the film.

As the count began for the asanas, a tinge of nostalgia stuck me. It was just as if yesterday was the first day I missed my morning Yoga class. Time is such a deceiving devil, I mused. It flies faster than we think. As I returned to my room after Yoga, I found the maid in-charge of my floor cleaning one of my friend’s room. I asked her to come to my room after she is done with the room. She quizzically asked on which floor my room was. With utmost honesty, I replied that I stayed on the same floor. “Oh”, she remarked as if something from her long-term memory suddenly got retrieved. “Room number 21”, I said to avoid further embarrassment. She had a derisive smile in which I could read, “That room which never opens even after a hundred knocks.”

She promptly came. She too was surprised that things did not change one bit since she last visited. As she cleaned, the bearer got the morning tea. I extended my mug. He raised his eyebrows with remark which only I could hear, “So, you too have your morning tea?” I proudly smiled saying to myself, “Yes, I do.” Once, I finished my tea, the laundry guy came to my floor. When he saw me standing with cloths, he almost dropped the pressed clothes he was carrying. I remember him knocking my door every alternate day asking if there were any clothes to be pressed. I involuntarily shout from my blanket that I had none. One day, despite my repeated shouting he continued to knock my door. I furiously opened to give him a dressing down. But before I could burst out, he pleaded “Sir, please take back your pressed clothes. I am trying to give them back since a week but you refuse to open the door.” As usual, I got away with my trademark sheepish smile.

I was happy that I could do a lot of tasks that were pending. But what was more satisfying is that my presence at the early morning Yoga has motivated my friends to think and dream big. VV, who previously worked for railways, now believes that trains running at 500 km/hr would be a reality in the next six months. MJ, a doctor, thinks that next year we could have an oral vaccine that would protect us from both cancer and AIDS. NN, who hails from Bangalore, is confident that next time he visits home, he can reach M.G.Road from airport in 20 minutes. Today, they have realized that “I have a dream” and “Audacity of hope” are not mere dramatic phrases. If they could spot me at the early morning Yoga, they can even expect their day dreams to come true.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The One Year Itch

It is one year since I joined the National Academy of Direct taxes. I think it is time that I share what I have learnt in this one year. The major subjects were accountancy and Income Tax Act. Accountancy was truly unnerving to say the least. Though I come from an engineering background, I am not very comfortable with numbers with a trail of zeros. I don’t mind algebraic expressions. But pages with high density of numbers is not something I was familiar or comfortable with. Till date, the maximum numerical density I could tolerate was the soduku square. Here was a long list of numbers waiting to be divided into two categories, debit and credit. The challenge was not in segregation, but in ensuring that their totals were identical. And that’s where my woes began.

Actually, debit and credit are not entirely new to me. Debit is the name of the card which was given to me by the bank which has my salary account. It is a good card but doesn’t work after the 10th day of the month. Credit is the card which my dad gave me. It works 365 days a year. To sum up, I had very pleasant memories of “debit’ and “credit”. But ever since I started my accountancy classes, I began to hate those words. At the end of the course, the only thing that I am confident of is that I can draw a line that would run exactly through the center of the page.

I don’t think my experience with the Income Tax act is very different. Even the best of the argumentative Indians will acknowledge without second thoughts that it is the most difficult and complicated pieces of legislation. But that is how tax legislations are. It is said that Prince Siddhartha left his kingdom the day his taxation classes began. Later, he attained enlightenment pondering over the first word uttered in the class, “Income”. Chandragupta Maurya, fearing that his son too might run away, divested himself of the finance portfolio and handed it over to Chanakya. Chanakya’s concern for posterity took the shape of Arthashasthra. But that is where the problems began to grow in geometric progression. Codification of laws gives rise to a new phenomenon called “interpretation”, whose limits coincide with that of ingenuity and insanity.

The Income Tax Act, 1961 must be having around 400 sections, 1200 sub-sections and god-knows-how-many provisos and explanations. But I know only two sections. Section A and Section B. Section B is where HK and CM sit. I too sit sleep there. HK sits next to me, wakes me up when the class is over and reminds me that it is time to go for lunch / tea / home. CM was her predecessor. But for these two, I am not really sure to which sections the rest of my batchmates belong to. I hardly see any of them. The road from the mess to my classroom is utterly deserted when I run every morning to the class with a toast in mouth and paper tissues in my hands. If I am lucky, I wouldn’t be caught by my Assistant Course Director at the entrance of building.

If I am luckier, then he would send me back and ask me to join the next session. I would then go back to the mess and have a complete breakfast. Since I would be the lone diner, the entire staff of the mess would be there to serve me. I would leisurely eat till I risk falling asleep on the dining table. I would then take a cup of tea and take a stroll across the lawns opposite to the mess and wonder for the zillionth time how beautiful early mornings are. Never mind the clock striking 10. ‘Early’ is relative.

Yes, I lose one half casual leave for missing the class. But how does that matter. I never needed any leaves. I don’t have anywhere to go or anything to do. During probation, marriage is the most common occasion for which officers apply for a leave. I don’t see myself getting married even in my next birth and don’t have sufficient foresight to look beyond that. I don’t even have a beautiful fiancĂ© / girlfriend whom I would love to meet. Considering that it took two and a half decades to get rid of me, I am the last person whom my parents would love see at their door. No wonder, in my one year stay in the academy, I just took one day leave. That was just last week. It was to attend a wedding of my batchmate at Punjab. At the risk of repetition and boredom, I would like to confess that I had no luck with lasses at the wedding.

On my way back, at Delhi, I managed to detain MS for a coffee. I love meeting MS because she is the only human being who often tells me that I am smart, intelligent and funny. I know it is her education that makes her say so. She was a practicing psychiatrist who is now pursuing M. Phil at IHBAS. It was more than a year I met her and I shared my achievements (or rather the lack of it) with her. This time even her professional experience couldn’t prevent her from getting shocked at how disastrous a person could be. When she recovered, she managed to blurt out, “I am scared what is going to happen when you go to office next April.”

I calmly replied, “So is the Government of India”

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Honest Taxpayers

“I have some more cases for you”, my surrogate trainer (ST) announced.

It was around 10 days since my “On Job Training” (OJT) began. He handed me a case bang on the day I reported to him. It was a case where the investigations were in progress. He asked me to study it, find Grey areas and prepare a questionnaire. That he served my questionnaire on the assessee[1] without much change was a tacit acknowledgment that I did a decent job. Or atleast I concluded it that way. Self-confidence building measures, you see. The assessee asked for time to file his reply. It was at this juncture that my ST announced that he had more cases in store for me.

I was happy because going through these files was certainly more interesting than observing office procedures like maintenance of records, handling mails etc. And, occasionally, you also get some page 3 pleasures when you see where and how the rich and famous have their wealth made or stored. I looked forward to the next case as it was an opportunity to prove that my previous efforts were not a fluke and I did have some soft mass beneath my hard skull. Not that my ST doubted; He was fine trainer who seemed to believe positively in the potentials of young officers. It is just that I did not want to prove him wrong like I did to most of my teachers who taught me previously.

Files of three cases were brought and placed on the large table of my ST. I picked up the case with the bulkiest of files. It is said that the best way to overcome the fear of something is to face it. And that was precisely what I was trying to do. Get over the fear of files, more importantly, the real fat ones. I took them back to my desk. STs are usually range heads, whose functions are mainly supervisory. He would have around five assessing officers under him who would scrutinse the Income Tax returns filed in the range. The range head does not do the scrutinies. However, in recent years, the range heads have been asked to scrutinise the top 20 cases in their jurisdiction. The case given to me was one such case. I found that my ST had begun investigations and had called for a lot of information from the assessee. He virtually called for proofs of every source of income and every source of expenditure. That explained why those files were so bulky. The assessee too seemed to be a meticulous person. He filed every detail that was called for; That too in a very neat and organised manner. I was impressed.

For the next three days, I perused through the documents. As with most cases, it took sometime to grasp the orientation of the case. True, I had a briefing about the activities of the assessee. But trying to deduce the line of investigation from the documents produced does take some time. Especially, when it is just the second case you are seeing. After three days of perusal, I was utterly frustrated. I could just come up with one issue. In the last case, where the file had just around one-third of documents in the present case, I came up with seven issues. When I brought to my ST's notice, the sole anomaly detected by me, he casually replied that it was already brought to the notice of the assessee, who conceded it. Wow. So that is a clean zero. The following day such was my desperation that I even began to verify the conveyance bills. I called up my friend who lived in Bangalore for four years and asked him the distance between various places in Bangalore and the corresponding taxi charges. This yielded just what my previous efforts in this case yielded. Nothing.

Finally, I gave up. The following morning, when my ST asked the progress in the case, I confessed that I could not detect anything. He seemed to be least perturbed. He made me understand something, remembering which, would hold me good stead in days to come. It not necessary that I always succeed. There would be honest taxpayers and in such cases any amount of scrutiny would not yield anything. Wisdom lies in accepting this fact. There is no point in passing orders making additions to taxable income merely because I have spent days investigating a case and I cannot accept the result to be nothing. It is not a question whether such orders would stand the test of the appellate authorities. They are sure to be knocked down. But in the process, it creates undue hardship to the taxpayer and avoidable workload to my colleagues. Instead, accept the income offered to tax and close the case.

After that day, I went through many files. And not a single one was flawless. But yes, that one file taught me that honest taxpayers are not a realm of fiction. They exist. I may not come across them very frequently. But I should accept one when I come across.

[1] The process of scrutiny of Income Tax returns is termed as assessment. The person being assessed in a case is the assessee.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Performance Anxiety

Last week, I came across an open letter to Mr. Vinod Rai, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India. Mr. Rai mooted for performance-linked pay for PSU bank managers at a certain lecture. In response, the author raised the issue of assured pay and promotions in the civil service and wondered why not such a scheme begin with the civil services.

Considering the paltry increase in pay one gets with promotions, I wonder if denial of increments and promotion would really be effective. Since promotions are usually accompanied by transfers, I have heard people who desisted from promotion due to personal commitments. Also, there are people who perceive jobs in the higher rung to be sinecure and those below to be more interesting. So there is every chance that someone may be actually happy to retain a post of his liking than be promoted to a post of his dislike.

What is more important is that right persons man the right jobs. Government is a wonderful place which not just accommodates but actually needs all kinds of people. There is a place for the hares to usher in change and there is also a place for the tortoises to maintain the status quo. And remember, status quo is not such a dirty word as many presume it to be. In large diverse country like ours, stability is as important as change. A good administration is all about finding the right mix of both.

Unfortunately, it is these status quoists about whom many complain. The complaints become shriller when the status quoists are posted in places where change is urgently required. The solution is not punishing them with a refusal of promotion or increment. It would do no difference because even at a lower rank unless he is posted to the right job, the desired results will not be achieved. The solution lies in identifying one's skill and style of working and posting him to a place where his skills would be utilized best.

P.S: I don't want any sweeping cynical generalizations that those who work for the Government lack skill.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Doubt III : Parliamentary Democracy

After a long long time I read The Hindu and found this.
....Curiously, it is Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who has no known electoral base and holds office by virtue of being a member of the Rajya Sabha, who has been allowed to pull the trigger on the political arrangement ......
How many times have Sitaram Yechuri and Prakash Karat been elected to Lok Sabha? I lack general awareness. So, please let me know.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

The Making of a Taxman

(This post is dedicated to my Cultural Secretary, who silently works hard and comes up with innovative proposals. Be it purchase of new musical instruments or creating a collection of different genres of music from all parts of the country or celebration of every festival from Lohri to Pongal to Holi or an extended game of Dumb Charades, he is always working to ease out the stress of tax laws. Commissioner Baghalpur Saab (as we fondly call him), you rock!!! )
I must apologise for the long hiatus in posting. It is only a fortnight since I got my computer in my room. I still don’t have internet. And it is difficult to blog amidst the din of our computer lounge. To those who are wondering what happened all these days, I present a brief summary of what happened in this long gap.

It is close to four months since I arrived at National Academy of Direct Taxes. To chronicle my stay in one post is virtually impossible. But idiots like me can achieve even the impossible with an unbelievable ease. At least my stupidity helps me to believe so. Before, I proceed let me inform you that I have a slight problem in judging time and space. At times, this is aggravated due to short term memory loss. So if you find that I have mixed up tenses, places, persons, genders, reality and fantasies, please forgive me.

We landed on 9th December. Contrary to our expectations, December was pretty warm. Probably, it was the warmth of our preceding batch, the faculty and our then Director General, who always had a special love for probationers. As days passed, the warmth increased. But this was from a different source – Tea. Now don’t dismiss this with a condescending sigh. It was at NADT that I discovered that there exists a ritual called High Tea. For someone who seldom drank tea, high tea was something very alien. But, soon we learnt that high teas were a common thing in the government and one must learn to enjoy it.

We had so many High Teas during December that the IPCC almost issued a missive accusing us of disproportionately contributing to global warming. An undisclosed highly placed report from the Economic Intelligence wing reportedly observed that if FBT was imposed on High Teas, then the fund collected could single-handedly meet the budget requirements of NREGA, SSA and NACO. However, considering that it would place a huge burden on most of the Government departments, the observation was silently pushed under the carpet.

On a serious note, high teas actually serve as an excellent platform to impart soft skills. For example, how to eat crispy golden fried Jalebis with a fork while holding the tea cup in a saucer in one hand and the plate containing the jalebis in another. Or how to eat with poise even when you might have actually been starving for three days and the snack is your favourite one.
But soon the incidences of High Tea reduced and we got restless. So we decided to elect a Cultural Secretary a.k.a CulSec and a Film Secretary a.k.a FilSec to make our evenings more eventful. The new CulSec took his role too seriously and celebration of various festivals became a serious affair in the academy. He is forever worried about what to celebrate. Such is his enthusiasm that when the calendar did not have any events for two consecutive weeks, he decided to celebrate International Holocaust Remembrance Day. He insisted that we have a really really sad song and a dance in slow motion. Luckily, just in time I informed him that you can just commemorate it, but not celebrate. He dropped the idea but not before finding a new reason to celebrate.
On February 6th, he wanted to celebrate the National Day of Niue. Officer Trainees (OTs) who had geography as their optional in Civil Service Examination, especially those who got the interview call again, are still trying to find where this country is. Nevertheless, the CulSec went ahead and planned a full-length programme with a folk dance from Tamil Nadu, a bhangra from Punjab, two songs (one instrumental and one vocal), and one dance. We, again, got into a fire fighting mode. We had to create an alternate event. Since the auditorium had excess capacity and no one in Nagpur was willing to come we decided to call our batchmates from Customs and Central Excise. They smelled something fishy and sent their senior batch. And this was what we were waiting for. The moment they landed in Nagpur they were led into the guest rooms and for the next one week we taught them the Income-tax Act. Why should only we have the pleasure of learning the act? Of course, we did keep our promise and treated them to the promised cultural evening on their last day of their stay.
While you are reading this post, the CulSec would get ready to celebrate Africa Malaria Day. It promised to be a grand event as sponsorships have already been obtained from all leading mosquito repellent products. When he is not organising festivals or lobbying for sanctioning of new proposals, he would be found writing his autobiography “Count Your Hair Before They G(r)o(w)”. And he is not the only budding writer here. At least a dozen books are on the offing from our batch. Some of the interesting ones are: How to Tax the Dead – A key to widen the tax base, 10001 Successful Reasons for Casual Leave, Seven Habits of Highly Unsuccessful KTPs[Refer footnote 1], Outsourcing Assignments and Income Tax for Dummies. All copies of the last book are sold out even before the first print.

I am not so intellectually endowed to write a book. So I prefer to read. I love autobiographies and Richard Branson’s is my all-time favourite. I have been reading it for over a decade. No luck, yet. Well, I am a slow learner.

When we are not reading or writing books, we watch movies. Our FilSec is no-nonsense guy who believes that movies must go beyond their targeted purpose of entertainment. At least he makes an attempt. What is great about watching meaningful movies? The challenge lies in watching meaningless movies and then trying to figure out what the movie was about. Towards this end, we had screenings of bollywood avant garde movies, like Mumbai Salsa. It was a cinematic expression of modern art. No one understands what it is, but everyone has a radically different story to tell, though they see the same visuals. Getting back to the movie, it had two far-reaching consequences, one unintended and one intended. First was that two Officer Trainees (OTs) qualified for an exchange program with the hospital [Refer footnote 2] across the road. Second was that the Hobbies Secretary started salsa classes. It was only later we came to know that salsa wasn’t as easy as it appeared. I had to abruptly drop out as doctor advised me not to lift weights more than 100 kgs.
My description of life here would be incomplete if I fail to mention the most exciting and adventurous activity which a few brave OTs undertake, marriage. Every weekend someone sets off to try his luck with the opposite gender. Activities range from visiting a prospective spouse, negotiating terms for a peaceful and non-violent marital life, actually getting married (which again could range from civil, ceremonial, secular, religious etc), pestering for family quarters in the campus etc. Those who do not have an opportunity to indulge in any of these luxuries spend their time watching movies like “Runaway Bride”, “My Best Friend’s Wedding” and “Four Wedding and (my?) Funeral”.

If you are wondering about the conspicuous absence of academic activities in this post, it is because I really don’t get what is happening in the class. My understanding of English is a little poor. So when the Basic Hindi classes [Refer footnote 3] are conducted, I go to my Basic English classes. I am the only student there. I have learnt the spellings of articles, pronouns and propositions. I am beginning to learn the spellings of a few nouns like “Income”, “Tax”, “House”, “Property”, “Business”, “Profession”, “Salary” etc. Once I complete my English classes, my regular classes will commence. Till then I have been advised to sleep (but not snore) in the class. I sign off with the promise in the next edition you will find my experiences in the class.

1. KTP – Keen Type Probationers, those whose excuse for existence is to study, study and just study.
2. Opposite our campus, there is mental hospital.
3. It is part of the Official Language Policy.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Saturday, January 05, 2008