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Inject the truth serum

Sometimes, a crusade intended to be in the public interest may itself prejudice public interest. This appears to be the case here.

india Updated: May 24, 2006 00:31 IST

Three unconnected institutions-- the gubernatorial office, the Income Tax Appellate Tribunal and Air-India-- illustrate different facets of public interest and how this can be promoted or prejudiced by acts and omissions which are not always what they seem.

Having written earlier in these columns about the commendable charitable work being done by the Governor of Uttaranchal and the public recognition accorded to this work officially by no less a person than the President, I was surprised to read allegations regarding misuse of his official position by him to raise funds for his favourite charities. A closer examination reveals that the charities in question have truly done yeoman service in a selfless and compassionate manner and that, till date, there has been absolutely no complaint about any misuse of funds. Sometimes, a crusade intended to be in the public interest may itself prejudice public interest. This appears to be the case here. Given the best of motives, the press report about the Governor may well inhibit the activities of the Himjyoti Foundation and that would be a real pity.

Sixty-seven Uttaranchal students receive scholarships of Rs 25,000 annually for the full duration of their professional engineering and medical courses. Eighty others are given between Rs 5,000 and Rs 15,000 annually. A total of 175 tsunami-affected children get Rs 600-800 per month for five years. Five girls who lost their parents to militancy in J&K are ensured college education at Rs 25,000 per year. Over the last two years, Rs 5 lakh per year has been given to the Tribes Institute at Dehradun providing educational support to 100 North-eastern students. A project fast nearing completion is that of a boarding school for girls from impoverished families in Uttaranchal where they will receive free education. These are no mean achievements.

Perhaps the Governor would have been well advised not to continue to formally head the charity after assumption of office as Governor and not to write on his official letterhead in respect of its charitable activities. But, at best, it can be called an error of judgment. The objective facts about the Foundation speak for themselves. An excessively narrow and pedantic view of the matter should not be allowed to irreversibly prejudice public interest. Given his resignation from an executive role in the Foundation, the matter must be allowed to rest there.

From the morass of the venality and corruption which surrounds many revenue services-- especially the income tax services-- emerges the shining example of the Income Tax Appellate Tribunal (ITAT). Set up in 1941 to hear appeals from orders of Commissioners of Income Tax (Appeals), the ITAT has 63 benches spread over 27 Indian cities, mostly state capitals.

When institutions have the right leadership and put their head down to get on with their jobs, public interest can be promoted. First, over the last few years, the tribunal has successfully reduced the pendency of its caseload from over 2 lakh pending cases to around 1 lakh cases as in April 2006. Even in busy cosmopolitan cities like Mumbai and Delhi, disposal of appeals is being done within two years, a substantial reduction from the over 7-10 year disposal paradigm prevalent earlier. Appeals of smaller or individual non corporate assesses are taken up and disposed off within a few months.

There was a time when the ITAT had the reputation of being the most efficient tribunal in the country. Eminent jurists like Nani Palkivala not only started here but practised regularly for several decades before the ITAT. From the late Seventies onwards, the tribunal began to suffer a decline but there has been considerable improvement in the recent past.

The internationally renowned tax guru, Prof. Klaus Vogel, has lauded the sophistication and dynamism of Indian jurisprudence relating to Double Taxation Avoidance Agreements. In doing so, he has specifically referred to recent decisions of the ITAT and not only praised them profusely for their technical excellence but also opined that they serve “as a model”. This, indeed, is objective accolade and appears to be well deserved.

While some of the hullabaloo by Air-India pilots and employees over the hiring of foreign commanders (ie. the head pilot flying the Air-India flight) to the exclusion of and at the cost of available competent Indian commanders may be ascribed to internal politics of the national carrier and to inter-personal ego problems, the entire issue cannot be wished away as frivolous. There appears to be some truth in the basic charge that Indian co-pilots who are at the threshold of attaining commander status are not allowed to proceed to or obtain the requisite training or flying hours that will make them eligible to be commanders. But AI appears to persist with selecting relatively junior pilots arbitrarily to proceed for training, excluding senior pilots from command training. This engineers an artificial shortage of Indian commanders who can command big jumbos on long international flights.

This artificially engineered shortage is then used to hire foreign commanders. These foreigners, hired on special contract basis, are outside the normal financial rules and regulations of the carrier. Their salary and allowances are exorbitant and much higher than that obtained by their Indian counterpart commanders. Their leave and off-flying hour regimes are much more liberal. Indeed, serious allegations have even been made that these foreign pilots are hired through benami recruitment agencies set up abroad by some senior Air-India officials themselves.

The system naturally results in a far higher outgo by the Indian exchequer, in a discriminatory and dual regime qua Indian pilots and in a high degree of demoralisation amidst regular AI pilots and employees. Only a thorough inquiry by an independent government audit team can establish the truth. If found even partly true, it would merit stern action being taken expeditiously.