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Remembering tariff when detariffing arrives
December, 08th 2006

The Commerce and Industry Minister, Mr Kamal Nath, has proposed that we offer substantial tariff concessions to the LDCs (least developed countries). The day's news, closer home, is also that the IRDA (Insurance Regulatory & Development Authority) has retained tariffs for third-party motor cover, even as the industry is gearing itself to come to terms with detariffing, which is set to roll in from the New Year's Day, only weeks away.

Elsewhere, `Tanzania ponders power tariff hike as supplies ease,' as People's Daily Online, China, reports `1 hour ago'. Prensa Latina, Cuba, informs, `Bolivia, US Resume Tariff Talks'. And Forbes says, `Spain's electricity tariff deficit to be eliminated in 2010-2011'. No better time, therefore, to get to know `tariff'.

Entry for the word appears between `Targum' (an ancient Aramaic paraphrase or interpretation of the Hebrew Bible) and `tarlatan' (a thin, open-weave muslin fabric, used for stiffening ball dresses), in Concise Oxford English Dictionary. Tariff means `a tax or duty to be paid on a particular class of imports or exports'. The Customs Tariff Act has schedules that specify the rates at which Customs duties are to be levied under the Customs Act, 1962. Part II of the Customs Tariff Act has 98 chapters, from `live animals' to `project imports'.

The income tax is a twentieth-century socialist experiment that has failed, declares Alan Keyes. "Before the income tax was imposed on us just 80 years ago, government had no claim to our income. Only sales, excise, and tariff taxes were allowed." Another `tariff' quote, a dated one, on is of William Kirby: "On trade and economic relations, the PRC and Taiwan are increasingly a de-facto a single tariff area."

Tariff also means "a list of fees, fares, or other prices charged by a business," as Encarta explains. For example, "Hotel Tariff 2006/2008 all rates shown are per room, per night including either continental breakfast or full Welsh breakfast," is a snatch from Utilities too have their tariffs. "Any decision to revise power and water tariff upwards cannot be taken without conducting appropriate studies," informs a Doha-datelined story on

"Under the criminal law of England and Wales, a tariff is the minimum period that a person serving an indefinite prison sentence must serve before that person becomes eligible for parole," is a definition in Wikipedia. Tariff can be `a synonym for rent,' as in this example on "A $127 tariff is levied on students residing at Fenner Hall".

As verb, tariff means `set cost of something'; that is, `fix a tariff or price on something'. A recent posting on is about `the marketing and tariffing strategies of mobile operators and content providers around the world'. But, more than tariffing, it is the opposite, detariffing, that is making headlines, because of the free pricing environment that the general insurance industry will have to get used to, soon.

Not a new phenomenon, nor peculiar only to India. "Detariffing means that long distance companies may no longer simply file a document called a `tariff' to notify the FCC about the rates, terms and conditions of long distance service and make those changes effective the next day," explained the US Federal Communications Commission ( in a 2001 press release. "Starting in the early 1980s, the FCC tried to prohibit tariff-filing by carriers, but that effort was successfully challenged in court since the Communications Act of 1934 required the FCC to review telecommunications carriers' tariffs to ensure their reasonableness," is a piece of history narrated in the communiqu.

"The landscape changed, however, when Congress passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which gave the FCC authority to forbear from applying regulations if it was in the public interest. In April 2000, the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia issued a decision permitting the FCC's efforts to detariff." Not surprising, therefore, that the IRDA's go-ahead for detariffing from January 1, 2007, too attracts its due share of criticism from doomsayers.

For the avid, "Some interesting period-pieces on the 19th-century tariff debates can be found in Ida Tarbell's 1911 book `The Tariff in Our Time,' and a collection of articles and speeches put together by a Harvard Professor named F.W. Taussig in 1909, called `State Papers and Speeches on the Tariff'," informs Andrew Leonard in an article titled `More fun with tariff history' on

Tariff is traced to 1591, by Online Etymology Dictionary. The word meant `arithmetical table,' from Italian tariffa, Medieval Latin tarifa `list of prices, book of rates,' from Arabic ta'rif `information, notification, inventory of fees to be paid,' informs "Meaning `official list of customs duties on imports or exports' is from 1592; sense of `classified list of charges made in a business' is recorded from 1757." Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1898) on has this on the origin of tariff: "The word is derived from Tari'fa, a seaport of Spain about twenty miles from Gibraltar, where the Moors, during the supremacy in Spain, levied contributions according to a certain scale on vessels entering the Mediterranean Sea."

On that, there can be differences, it seems. "In the field of trade, the word `tariff' is derived from the Arabic term `al-ta'rif al-jumruki,' while the French word `cheque' is from the Arabic word `sakk'," states "Taxi! Do you know where the tourist office is?" In Arabic, this translates to, "Taxi! ta'rif wayn maktab as-seeyaaha?" as one of the many travel phrases on helps with.

Racket is from rahat (palm of the hand); hazard, from al az-zahr (dice); alcohol, from al-kuhl (spirits of fermentation); and coffee and caf, from qahwah (coffee, originally wine), as lists. Traffic, too, is from Arabic taraffaqa meaning `to seek profit', says Ta'rif also stands for `report, praise' and tarifa means `live in opulence', according to Arabic Etymological Dictionary.

With detariffing ushering in pricing driven by market forces, a key question is whether businesses that lived in opulence during the tariff regime will continue to so thrive.

D. Murali

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