Sucheta Dalal :Tougher times
Sucheta Dalal

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Tougher times  

Jul 23, 2006

There is almost a consensus among senior citizens today that the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government has made life more difficult for those in the taxable bracket. I asked several leading tax accountants if this was an impressionistic view based on the number of letters one receives from agitated seniors or a reality. All of them agreed that senior citizens are being unduly harassed due to lack of clarity in framing policies and the unwillingness to recognise that they deserves some special consideration. Last fortnight, several Mumbaikars were disturbed by a senior citizen’s column in a local daily pleading for the right to euthanasia because it was getting too difficult to cope. While she listed several hardships, at the top of the list was the reduction in monthly income due to lower interest rates, higher taxes, inflation and escalating cost of essential commodities. The latest blow is the report that government insurance companies do not want to provide Mediclaim to people above 55. The government has not reacted so far to the outrageous decision by public sector insurance companies. But here are some angry reactions: ‘‘Will the government react only when there is a spate of suicides?’’ Another says, ‘‘The government must remember that senior citizens in the tax bracket have paid extortionate taxes during their working careers and had no access to housing concessions and capital gains benefits available today; in fact even their gratuity was taxed after a lifetime of employment. Surely some concessions for seniors are a matter of right?’’ A 71-year-old who has paid medial insurance premium for 15 years asks, ‘‘What is insurance, is it not a provision for contingency? Is old age not a realistic contingency after decades of useful service to the nation?’’ Does the government have any answers?


Secret or public?


It is an open secret that the Indian government leaks like a sieve. Many industrialists have regular ‘arrangements’ to get official files relating to taxes, duties and large project clearances photocopied and handed over to their ‘liaison’ officials in Delhi and anything marked ‘secret’ commands a premium. But what do you say when information provided under the Right to Information Act to an ordinary citizen reaches him stamped ‘Secret’? Isn’t all information provided under RTI in the public domain? On the night of July 18, Veeresh Malik, an RTI applicant, received a double cover marked ‘secret’ delivered through a special messenger. A perplexed Malik has now made another application seeking a clarification on the ‘‘implication of the term ‘secret’ in an RTI response’’. Until he receives an answer, he is keeping the reply a secret—but the nature of the query probably explains why government officials want to keep a lid on the information. He has asked the government to provide him with the definition of ‘VIP’ and ‘VVIP’ with a view to finding out who decides their status and the many privileges they enjoy, including the power to flout traffic rules, parking restrictions and payment of tolls.


Honouring knowledge


Indian institutions have a scant respect for their own history or documenting the evolution of trends in their respective sectors. That is why there are such few biographies (as opposed to self-commissioned hagiographies with limited value) about business personalities, companies and institutions. The Multi-Commodity Exchange (MCX), India’s leading commodity bourse, is proving to be different, mainly due to CEO Jignesh Shah’s passion for knowledge and history. When MCX was being set up and its commodity contracts structured to suit Indian markets, Shah leaned heavily on the knowledge of two low-profile but extremely knowledgeable individuals—Dr Madhoo Pavaskar (an expert in commodities, especially cotton) and Madhusudhan Daga (an authority on gold with first hand knowledge of markets, the trade, mines and even smuggling routes). The exchange has chosen to honour the knowledge of these two individuals through annual Ph.D. scholarships at the Mumbai University for encouraging academic interest in commodities trading. This is in addition to the ‘MCX Chair’ to foster commodities research as well as historical research it has commissioned on Indian commodity markets.


Falling already


Are investors in realty more prudent than those in the capital market? Sources in the real estate market seem to think so. They say that prices for genuine buyers, as opposed to the exaggerated rates published by the media, are already down 12-15%. However, the bigger indicator of the bearish trend is the sharp drop in inquiries. A well-connected broker says, ‘‘If prices are down 12% then buying inquiries have dropped almost 80%. The smarter builders are quietly reducing prices for genuine buyers instead of holding on to depreciating assets’’. What makes realty buyers savvier? Market circles say the double whammy of rising interest rates and realty prices has forced actual users to quickly scale down demands and expectations and negotiate hard for better bargains. And this is one market where actual users are probably a greater force than investors looking purely for a price play.


-- Sucheta Dalal