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The Taxman's Day Out
July, 31st 2010

Read my lips, pay your taxes. The next time income tax-wallahs say that, we mustn't sulk. For, taxmen aren't merely monochromatic bureaucrats bent on burning holes in pockets. Several of them have just participated in art exhibitions and travelling workshops to fete a momentous occasion: 150 years of India's I-T department! They've displayed their dabblings, drawings, paintings and sculptures, alongside the works of art professionals. The aim? To 'paint' income tax that source of universal fear and grumbling in a new, people-friendly light. Surely a feat for the Great Masters.

Surprise, surprise: taxmen can give full-time artists a run for their taxable money. Was that why some full-timers had churlish misgivings about whether income tax could be beautified for an inflation-hit public? In the event, they supported the taxman's message: if bitter medicine's good for health and cabbage soup's good for the soul, tax is good for both plus the country. Amen.

Sans taxmen's services, Indians could hardly see taxpayer-fuelled growth and development. That they also see taxpayer-funded free lunches for netas and babus is another matter. Now, sharpened aesthetic sense will help tax decriers appreciate one symbolically loaded painting: a bull - representing growth driven by a taxman in a humble dhoti. Where but in art is there licence to put cart (taxes) before horse (wealth creation)? Another artist portrays taxmen as bees collecting honey for the greater good of the community. See? It's not just about the money, honey.

Tax guys elsewhere haven't been exempted from image problems, which they've never thought of fixing as creatively as our boys. A US humorist once said that he knows it's tax time whenever he looks at documents that make no sense no matter how many beers he's guzzled. Another had advice for people fretting about the audits of the formidable Internal Revenue Service: avoid showing "a red flag", that is, any leftover money in bank accounts after paying taxes! Did similar disgruntlement provoke non-payment of certain taxes in the past by no less than the current US treasury secretary? Not that it stopped him from getting hired to promote Obama's Tax Americana.

Back here, our taxmen haven't betted on art alone to reach out to citizens. Two highest taxpaying film stars pitched in, to appear in a documentary tracing the long way taxation has come. For the I-T department, it's been a happy way too, given last fiscal year's whopping Rs 3,80,000 crore mop-up. Who knows, with the PR coup of taxmen-turned-Picassos getting back-patted by Bollywood biggies, direct tax revenue may well shoot up, answering the deficit-saddled FM's prayers.

Only, to get returns on a true image makeover, shouldn't our netas expedite that model tax code that's supposed to usher in lower, compliance-friendly taxes, simpler rules and reduced scope for litigation? Or will our tryst with tax reform for direct or indirect taxes take another 150 years? If yes, let's redraw that picture and make it a bullock cart, not bull, driven by a dhoti-clad taxman. If no, cheers to less taxing times.

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