The Centre's move to impose wealth tax on agricultural land triggered a battle for oneupmanship between the Shiromani Akali Dal-led Punjab government and the opposition Congress on Thursday.
In a rare move, the state government decided to convene an emergency session of the Vidhan Sabha on May 3 to give voice to the farmers' outrage against the Congress-led UPA government's "repressive" step.
Till Thursday afternoon, the SAD-BJP government had been consulting experts on fiscal matters to ascertain the extent to which the tax would hit farmers. During the day, the government's spin masters held a series of meetings and also consulted chartered accountants to assess the tax's potential impact.
Towards the evening, wealth tax became a hot-button issue. While Punjab Congress leaders, in an apparent bid to steal the Akalis' thunder, met union finance minister P Chidambaram in New Delhi and "strongly opposed the proposed wealth tax on urban agricultural land," the SAD here held an emergency meeting of its core committee and decided to launch an anti-Congress offensive across the country.
Chief minister Parkash Singh Badal slammed the Centre for arbitrarily thrusting its decision on farmers and termed it a "retrograde step" which would crush the distressed peasantry.
The state government devised a multi-pronged offensive against the Centre's "repressive, back-breaking and anti-farmer" decision after it emerged in the initial assessment that at least 85% cultivable land would come under the tax's ambit. The proposed amendment bill in question is likely to be moved in the Lok Sabha on May 6. Under this move, all types of agricultural land within the parameters fixed will be treated as urban land and be subject to wealth tax at the rate of 1% of the collector rates, the government claimed.
If the decision is implemented, farmers of the border state will have to pay a minimum tax of Rs 30,000 per acre per annum, while in many cases where land price is much higher, the tax will shoot up to Rs 1 lakh in a year per acre.
In this backdrop, the CM and SAD president Sukhbir Singh Badal held the party's core committee meeting - where seniormost party leaders were present to chalk out a political and legal strategy to challenge the imposition of wealth tax.
The daylong Vidhan Sabha session on May 3 is aimed at "giving expression to widespread people's outrage against the Centre's disastrous move to impose wealth tax on practically all agricultural lands in the state and the country on the pretext of defining lands within 8km of municipal or corporation towns as urban lands."
A cabinet meeting on this burning issue will be held on Friday.
"We are engaging all like-minded political parties across the country to raise this issue inside and outside Parliament," said Harcharan Bains, Punjab CM's adviser on national affairs.
The SAD leadership, after keeping the state as well as national leaders of its alliance partner Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the loop, decided to launch a 'lok lehar' (people's movement) across the country. The CM will rush to Delhi on Friday to meet a battery of union leaders and frontline leaders of all regional and national parties. He will camp in the Capital from April 30 to May 3 to mobilise anti-Congress forces to mount pressure on the UPA government to withdraw wealth tax on agricultural land across the country.
A delegation of Akali-BJP MPs, MLAs and other leaders will call on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to impress upon him the urgency of shelving this "dangerous move."
The SAD core committee also decided that the party and the BJP would hold statewide dharnas at district headquarters from 11am to 1pm on May 2. All ministers, senior leaders, MPs, MLAs, zila and circle jathedars of the SAD and other office-bearers of both parties will stage dharnas at the district headquarters.
The ruling party also set up a three-member committee comprising Akali leaders Tota Singh, Prem Singh Chandumajra and Mahesh Inder Singh Grewal, who will meet legal experts and engage them for the court battle.
The SAD is also sending its leaders to non-Congress-ruled states to join the nationwide stir.
Bajwa, other Congress MPs meet Chidambaram
Chandigarh: Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee (PPCC) president Partap Singh Bajwa, accompanied by other party MPs from Punjab, on Thursday called on union finance minister P Chidambaram and "strongly opposed proposed wealth tax on urban agricultural land."
According to a press statement, Bajwa was accompanied by Manish Tewari, union minister of state for information and broadcasting; Preneet Kaur, union minister of state for external affairs; Mohinder Singh Kaypee and Ravneet Singh Bittu.
Bajwa, in a memorandum submitted to Chidambaram, said wealth tax had created havoc as the income tax department had started issuing notices to owners of agricultural land. He said the PPCC unanimously opposed wealth tax. Bajwa stated that the income from agriculture was minimal and interest rates on loans were high. "Wealth tax would completely eradicate the agricultural community and it would have grave political repercussions," he said.
Bajwa requested the UPA to "immediately withdraw the proposed amendment imposing wealth tax to prevent further damage to farmer-friendly policies" of the Congress-led union government.