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Truckers can't hold country to ransom
July, 01st 2008

 The All India Motor Transport Congress (AIMTC) call for a nationwide indefinite strike from tomorrow is clearly aimed at pushing the government to the wall. Any disruption in commercial transport is bound to aggravate the already serious price situation. Far from winning public support for their cause, this will only end up alienating the public.

Whatever the merits of the truckers demands and except in the case of service tax on goods transport agents (GTAs) there are none a strike is not the way to go. The government must stand firm. For too long have truckers been a law unto themselves. In the past too, opposition to the hike in motor insurance tariffs, saw de-tariffing of motor insurance alone being kept in abeyance even as tariffs on all other forms of general insurance were freed.

In the current instance, their demands range from exempting sub-contractors from service tax, adhering in letter and spirit to the 2004 agreement to removal of ad valorem taxes levied on diesel, to scrapping tolls on old highways where costs have been recovered. While there may be some substance in the demand for a relook at how service tax is computed, the other two demands are patently absurd.

Tolls are an integral part of privately-funded roads, and to argue that once the cost has been recovered there should be no further increase is untenable. Yes, as privately-funded roads become the norm, there is a case for a regulator and hopefully we will have one in place soon, but the AIMTCs argument against tolls is faulty. Profit is as much a motive for private investment in road-building as in trucking.

Similarly, the demand that taxes on diesel be levied on a specific rather than ad valorem basis is part of a larger issue of taxes on petroleum products and is not something that affects the trucking industry alone. In all likelihood, the immediate provocation is tax recovery notices demanding payment of arrears of Rs 400-500 crore due to serious anomalies noticed by taxmen in their audit on GTAs.

But these disparate issues have been bundled together only to gain public sympathy. In any case, a strike is hardly the answer. There are alternate mechanisms, such as the appellate tribunal, where the aggrieved parties can seek redressal; trying to hold the nation to ransom is not one of them.

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