No to check gates
With its decision to abolish all illegal check gates, the Sarbanda Sonowal government has got cracking on the right note. While taking the oath of office on Tuesday, the new chief minister had sought the people's support to free Assam from corruption, among other things. If there is one symbol of endemic, deeply entrenched corruption enjoying the blessings of politicians and vel officials, it is the ubiquitous checkpoint or toll gate mushrooming illegally all over the State. Literally committing highway robbery and operating as a law unto themselves, these illegal check gates have been fleecing people with sundry 'goonda' taxes. Among the first decisions of the incoming government, the abolition of all such check gates has been aimed at illegal syndicates. If the government cracks down with all seriousness on illegal check gates, it will surely strike a first blow on the prices front as well. Most commodities in Assam are costlier than in other parts of the country, whether it is the humble paan, eggs, fish, onion or mustard oil coming from outside, or vegetables grown locally. There is a syndicate for every product, big or small, in this State — extorting a tax from that product and making it pricier as it moves into the markets. Syndicates set up check gates almost overnight at strategic points on transport routes right under the nose of the police and civil administration, or openly in cahoots with them. Proceeds of the goonda tax collected go to the local police station, corrupt public officials and politicians. Hopefully, the new government's move will make this loot a thing of the past, but there is a caveat.
If the question is asked how the pernicious syndicate and check gate culture came to flourish in the first place in this State, we need look no farther than the way authorized check gates have been operating. Back in April, 2007, the one-man CK Das inquiry committee submitted a report which the powers-be in Dispur found so uncomfortable, it was straightaway put into cold storage before an RTI query dug it out into public view. The report blew the lid on how the Assam government was losing hundreds of crores in revenue every year from just two inter-state check gates — Baxirhat (Chagolia) in Dhubri district and Srirampur in Cachar district on the Assam-West Bengal border. Overloaded trucks coming into the State were 'under assessed', so very little flowed into government coffers. But the trucks had to pay inflated fines for every extra tonne of goods, followed by mandatory payments to Tax, Excise, Forest and Agriculture Marketing Board (ASAMB) officials as well as the Motor Vehicle Inspector (MVI). There were additiol counters operated by militant groups and the local police station through lumpens; even local youths charged a rate from every truck in the me of 'pollution check'. Calling the continued iction of the police and Transport, Fince (Taxation) and other departments as not possible without 'support and blessings from some higher authorities', the report went on to note: "Money paid in the gates by the truckers as bribe has to be collected back by the traders from the public of Assam by raising the selling price of the goods…"
There are check gates throughout the State, authorized to check movement of forest products, coal and various goods. Rather than helping the State government keep an eye on things and impose pelties for rule-breaking, most of these check gates are well organized rackets run by government officials. Can electronically monitored, composite check gates prevent such malpractices? In line with a Supreme Court order, the Srirampur check gate was upgraded in 2010 to composite status, bringing about single window computerized passing of vehicles, thereby bringing under one head the five check gates origilly run by the Sales Tax, Excise, ASAMB, Forest and MVI officials. But the much touted transparency and increase in tax revenue collection did not materialize. The reasons? Official corruption continues through forgery of documents to help vehicles avoid taxes and enter, of course, in return for bribes; meanwhile, goonda tax extortion goes on ubated within and outside the check gate. In 2010, a tiol TV channel first learnt through an RTI query that there were 32 approved forest check gates in Assam. Its reporters then conducted an investigation, showing at least seven uuthorized check gates in and around Guwahati alone, 'collecting taxes' from forest products like timber, stones and sand, including one at Khapara right below the chief minister's residence! The NDA government is now pinning hopes on the Goods and Services Tax (GST), which if passed by Parliament will create a tiol-level, unified market and do away with the need for check-gates. Some states are demanding that the revenue loss in the form of octroi, VAT and other taxes due to abolition of check gates must be compensated by the Centre. The Sarbanda Sonowal government's move against illegal check gates is welcome. But both the BJP-led governments in Dispur and New Delhi will have to do much more to clean up authorized check gates, and to abolish these as well when the time comes.