The GST Row

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“For us the GST application to J&K will in no way harm its special status. At the same time there have been serious expressions of doubt, apprehensions. To end the grievances we need more time to convince the people and the leaders of opposition.”

Asem Mohiuddin

Last month when GST conference was held in Srinagar that was chaired by Union Finance Minister, Arun Jaitley and participated by almost finance ministers of all the states, the J&K’s Finance Minister Haseeb Drabu before entering into the conference room told the reporters that J&K will also implement the new tax regime. Drabu, however said that a special session of the J&K Legislative Assembly will be held that will initiate process for implementation of the new tax regime in state without compromising the state’s speciality under Article 370. However, the comments of the finance minister were not convincing the opposition who were protesting an attempt of government to implement it.  The former banker had earlier when his party (PDP) was in opposition termed the implementation of new tax regime as an attempt to erode the special status of state by New Delhi. While advocating its implementation now, Drabu said that not only the implementation will benefit the state’s economy by Rs 1500 to 2000 crores annually, also all steps would be taken to safeguard the Article 370 and fiscal autonomy of the state.

Despite assurances from the J&K Finance Minister nobody was ready to believe him. The first red flags were raised by the traders of the Kashmir Valley, followed by all the mainstream political parties except, BJP, Panthers Party (PP) and some leaders within the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP). Even Congress that has been advocating for implementation of the GST in J&K, has now started opposing it and like other parties its leadership is also demanding transparency. As the special session was nearing, separatists who seldom speak on the issues of governance warned government of dire consequences in case the GST is implemented in the state.

The separatist leadership termed it as another ploy to erode the special status of the Kashmir and also reminded people how New Delhi has been using different tactics from 1953 to erode the special status that was given to J&K after it acceded with India. The separatist leadership even warned New Delhi about the repetition of unrest in Valley like 2008 and 2016 when Valley witnessed large scale violence and complete shutdown for months.

On the other hand, the Centre has been trying to put pressure on the state government for the implementation of GST as the BJP is coalition partner in the government. And to build consensus J&K chief minister first had a meeting with the Valleys traders and industrialists and sought their help in the implementation of the GST. According to traders the chief minister had assured them that government will not take any step that will weaken or erode the special status of the J&K under Article 370.

Chairman, Kashmir Traders and Manufactures Federation, Mohammad Yasin Khan said that state has its own constitution and laws such as GST which are directly passed by centre cannot be implemented in the state.

“We do not believe in one tax one regime. State of JK is a disputed territory,” he said, adding that erosion with status of JK will not be accepted.

Along with other business body-Kashmir Economic Alliance (KEA), he called for “Assembly Gherao” the day special session was to be held and organized a Valley wide bandh. He was not the alone leader opposing it. The business community also opposed its implementation when they met chief minister in Srinagar.

KEA chairman, Farooq Ahmad Dar called GST as “deliberate dint” to the fiscal economy of state. “This move is done on the same pattern of damaging autonomous institution -JK bank which was made subordinate to RBI. They (government) wants to erode whatever autonomy state is left with now. Center wants J-K to come with a begging bowl. We will not allow it,” he said.

After the meeting it became evident for the government that traders will not support government before it comes with an assurance that the implementation of GST will not hamper the special status and will not compromise the fiscal autonomy guaranteed by Article 5 on the J&K constitution. After meeting traders, the J&K chief minister, Mehbooba Mufti called for an All Party Meet to build consensus within the mainstream parties for GST implementation.

The meeting was held in cordial atmosphere and attended by all the mainstream political parties including some prominent cabinet ministers of the coalition government. And when the leaders of opposition parties especially the two former veteran finance ministers – Abdul Rahim Rather and Mohammad Shafi both from NC started questioning the government over the safeguards, the J&K’s Finance Minister failed to convince them even such was the atmosphere that at time chief minister, Mehbooba Mufti herself realized that her ministers had not been able to give convincing answers to the opposition. It was during this meeting only, that chief minister asked her finance minister that instead of passing the bill in hurry; it should be sent to the business advisory committee.

“When meeting was called, the government had no answers how it is going to safeguard Article 5 or the fiscal autonomy. Neither, the ministers who were advocating for its implementation had answers for the questions of the opposition leaders,’’ NC provincial president, Nasir Aslam Wani said soon after coming out of the meeting.

The leaders of other opposition parties also raised similar queries and it became evident in the meeting only that the special session of assembly will be useless or will be deferred till the consensus is build. Leader of another political party also hinted that even many members of the PDP are opposing the implementation of the GST without threadbare discussion as they feel its implementation through ordinance or any other order will further damage the political prospects of the Peoples Democratic Party that is already on the sticky wicket, especially after its alliance with the BJP.

Amid protests on Saturday when the special session of the J&K Assembly began, it started with protests from the opposition leaders who first converged at the gates of the assembly holding banners and placards warning that implementation of GST will erode the special status of the state and so far the financial autonomy that was with the J&K government will also be surrendered once it will be implemented. And when session began the members of the J&K opposition raised the questions of human rights and other issues and tried to corner the government on various issues.

After obituary references, speaker of the J&K Assemble, Kavinder Gupta adjourned the House sine die. Soon after the session was over, J&K Public Workers Minister, Nayeem Akthar who is also the spokesman of the government said that coalition government believes that by implementation of GST, the people of the state will get benefitted and state will generate additional revenue.

“For us the GST application to J&K will in no way harm its special status. At the same time there have been serious expressions of doubt, apprehensions. To end the grievances we need more time to convince the people and the leaders of opposition.”

Akthar said that if the Bill is passed in hurry, it could create another frenzy situation in the otherwise volatile Kashmir. “It would take us more time to create consensus on the implementation of GST in the state. It took the Centre 12 years to reach a consensus and nothing should be done in hurry.” Only two parties, BJP and Panthers Party (PP) are in haste for the implementation that has raised many eyebrows or apprehensions.

The Valley that is passing through another bad patch and situation is vulnerable any decision in a hurry could jeopardize the situation in Kashmir. By deferring the session, the government has taken the good decision. Any protests could have threatened the loss of civilian lives.

The Valley has already witnessed unrest for six long months and killing of over 90 civilians and thousands were injured, another spell of protests and violence could have put the government in danger. The prevailing mistrust between New Delhi and the people of Kashmir needs to be eroded and the people must be convinced of its benefits before it is implemented. 

As of it is the state government and especially the finance minister responsible for creating the confusion among the masses and political leaders over this new regime of tax. When Drabu failed to convince the leaders of opposition and from his own government in the all party meet, it indicates that there is no good homework done and the people opposing it enmass can’t be held responsible.

So far, the opposition to GST implementation by mainstream political parties and subsequently the failure of ruling party in putting it in black and white has further raised apprehensions with the common masses who term it as another ploy by New Delhi to disturb Kashmir.

The story appeared in print edition of  June 21-27, 2017. 

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