When it comes to unremitting high prices of construction materials and various essential goods in Assam, the people may be forgiven if they resign themselves to it as ‘the more things change, the more they remain the same’. This relentless fleecing of the public is another thing the BJP-led regime has been uble to (or unwilling to) change, never mind its slogan of riding the winds of parivartan. And in a case of the pot calling the kettle black, the Congress has now called for a CBI inquiry into the high prices of construction materials. Having patronised illegal syndicates and goonda tax collection during its 15-year rule, it is now the turn of the Congress to call for the unmasking of those behind the present ‘syndicate-raj’. The opposition party has alleged that is a syndicate ‘controlled by a top RSS leader’, which is setting high cement prices and evading taxes. The Congress has also trained guns at Forest minister Pramila Rani Brahma for colluding with a sand mining mafia ‘led by a former AGP minister’ in Kamrup district, as well as with ‘some BJP leaders’ operating thriving coal syndicates in Tinsukia district and adjoining parts of Aruchal Pradesh. Doubtless, the BJP will hit back at these allegations, but the ruling party has been caught on the wrong foot by its own Dispur MLA Atul Bora complaining publicly about illegal syndicates continuing to get a free run in the State. State BJP president Ranjeet Kumar Dass has been at pains to deny the allegations, but some of the blame is bound to stick. Chief Minister Sarbanda Sonowal’s drive to uproot illegal check gates is already history. Rather, the goonda tax collection apparatus has become more pervasive and sophisticated, with its dirty fingers in every pie. Suppliers and transporters are facing the brunt, making payoffs at forest beat offices, police stations and transport department check points. They get a smoother ride on some bridges and highway sections if they pay off syndicates — or else they are harassed along their entire route by teams of police and transport officials, even if their papers are in order. However, many suppliers and transporters carry illegally felled timber from reserved forests, stone chips quarried from green hillsides, sand mined from riverbeds; their trucks are overloaded, make clandestine detours and flout most rules. This comfortable arrangement between rule-breaking suppliers, traders and mafiosi on one hand, and corrupt officials on the other, leads to constant high prices of various goods and materials. The suspicion grows in the public mind that with the Centre tightening purse-strings in various schemes and State governments squeezed for funds, illegal syndicates and goonda tax collection will keep thriving as political dispensations lean upon them frequently for much-needed finces. The cost will be passed to common people, who are the ultimate soft targets of this officially condoned velity. The entire country will switch over to a new unified indirect tax regime, the Goods and Services tax (GST) next month; it is being touted as a reform with mandatory online tax payment and provision to track every transaction. But in a State like Assam where goonda tax collection is rampant, particularly for illegal products and practices, there will be little respite for customers. The Sarbanda Sonowal-led government will have to do much better to clean up the system if the State’s fragile economy is to be freed of such black money distortions.
Fleecing the public