The most important aspects of a public service, public oriented, public contact department, like the Income Tax, are public relations, grievances and corruption.
It is extremely important to handle these aspects in a meaningful and effective way.
Improving public relations
To start with, these departments have a bad, nasty, scary, public image.
Senior officers are not easily accessible.
When they are available, they are usually elusive and evasive.
I was always prepared to meet visitors even without any appointment.
I never left office without meeting the last visitor.
During my years as Chief Commissioner, I never avoided the press.
I was frank and free.
In turn, the press helped me convey the department’s message.
The entire media gave me extremely wide coverage.
In its issue of September 21, 2005, Hindu published my photo and message “Networking in IT Offices” with a rare front pager.
Even in public meetings, I gave my personal mobile number.
Complaints about refunds
There were the usual complaints about late or non receipt of refunds.
These complaints are monitored by an Income Tax Officer designated as Public Relations Officer. He maintains a register of complaints.
In my meetings with my senior officers, I always requested them to personally see there were no undue delays in issuing refunds.
I was in over all charge of income tax grievances of Tamil Nadu.
The usual practice on receiving a complaint is to call for a report. It’s an age old, time consuming process, involving too much unnecessary paper work.
When I received, or came across a long standing complaint (I used to call for and flip through the complaint register quite often), I would ask an assistant to bring the file. I would go through it and if there was delay, simply ring up the officer, or scribble a two line note, asking him to issue the refund and send a compliance report.
A reply would go to the complainant under my signature.
I have received several grateful letters. Taxpayers were pleasantly surprised to hear from the Chief Commissioner personally.
Such letters have kept me more than happy.
Going a little out of the way
Sometimes, a purely legalistic approach can only complicate matters, fail to solve the issue and lead to prolonged harassment and misery.
During an earlier posting in Chennai, an Assistant Manager of the State Bank of India came to me with a problem. One of the bank’s customers had deposited an income tax refund cheque in his account. But somehow, the bank lost it. The customer was writing complaints to everyone asking for his money. And the particular branch was constantly plagued with reminders from the State Bank’s head office.
The income tax department said that it was only the customer who could request for a duplicate refund order. The customer said that since he had not lost it, he would not make any request for a duplicate refund order.
I asked the Assistant Manager to give me a letter briefly narrating the facts.
I scribbled an order on the letter, “Issue Duplicate Refund Order”. And the refund was issued.
The Assistant Manager said he had been running round and round in circles for a whole year and I had solved the problem in a few minutes.
During that time, I had a series of financial problems.
The State Bank never forgot this small favour and remained my financial fairy god mother for the next six years.
The case of the beautiful lady
One day, over a nice dinner, a senior police officer in Chennai requested me to help a lady tax payer. He told me she was being harassed by her Income Tax Officer. He could not give me any further details. So I asked him to send the lady to me. Since the allegation involved a lady, I told him she should come with her auditor.
A few days later, the lady – a tall, slim, gori, really beautiful specimen in her late 30s, came to me with her auditor. She was a moneyed widow carrying on her husband’s business. She complained that she was being harassed by her income tax officer; and she broke down into tears.
I asked her in what way she was being harassed. She told me that the officer was telephoning her again and again. I asked her whether the officer had called her to his residence or to some other place. In other words, was he asking for sexual or monetary favours? Her answer was a clear no. I felt relieved.
I phoned the officer and asked him to meet me the next day with the lady’s income tax file. (Any other Chief Commissioner would have called for a report. And a devastating report would have come which would have created all kinds of problems for the lady.)
The officer came with the files. I asked him what the problem was. He explained that the lady’s accounts were in a complete mess. The copies of accounts filed with her returns were all wrong. On cross checking, he had found that the figures of sales, etc. were wrong. She had several investments which were not shown in her accounts.
We discussed the issue. I talked to the income tax officer’s seniors. Then we suggested to the lady that she engage a new auditor and get her accounts re-examined. The matter was resolved.
This clearly shows how a humane approach can solve a serious problem and help someone in distress.
I have always adopted such an approach.
I have never met or seen the lady ever since.
Corruption has gone……
Corruption is another horrendous part of our everyday life. Unfortunately, the level of corruption has increased to such an extent that corruption is taken for granted – an inseparable part of life. No stigma is attached to corruption. The public is actually more happy giving money. They feel that if they have paid money, there will be no harassment.
A parliamentary committee came to Chennai for a hearing. One of the items to be discussed was corruption. A member asked me to give the figures of complaints received. I reeled out the figures.
The member asked me, “Don’t you think, these numbers are far too small.”
I said, “I agree. But these figures are correct. We have not done any fudging”.
When the member persisted further, I explained that corruption had become so common, that in most cases, tax payers paid bribe happily. The payer and receiver were both happy. Then there would be no complaint.
Complaints came only when someone asked for too much. And even when an officer did not take money, but only did his job, an aggrieved tax payer could send a big complaint saying that such and such an officer was most corrupt and owned properties all over the country.
But according to government rules, unless a complaint has the complainant’s verifiable name and address, or has some specific details to enable the department to carry out further investigations, it is not treated as a complaint.
The members agreed that this indeed was the reality.
My thinking about corruption has completely changed over the years.
When I was a Commissioner in Mumbai, I once told my Chief Commissioner that there was no corruption now.
He looked at me as if I had gone mad.
I explained that there was no corruption because it had been replaced by extortion.
Nowadays, officials ask for bribe for not creating problems.
Bribery and corruption have become far too rampant.
There is no country in the world where there is no bribery and corruption.
But it has become so prevalent in countries like India, that it is accepted as a norm.
What should be done
Something serious has to be done about this epidemic:
*(Author is Retired Chief Commissioner of Income Tax)