On 13 August 2020, between much pomp and fanfare, Prime Minister Modi announced the new Transparent Taxation platform i.e. the new way forward for the Central Board of Direct Taxes. The main idea behind the Transparent Taxation platform is ‘faceless’ assessments and faceless appeals. Further, the Prime Minister promised that the tax administration would attempt to be seamless and painless. However, a substantial amount of the Prime Minister’s speech was dedicated to the ‘Citizen’s Charter’. It was announced that the income tax department would be committed to a charter that will consider the assessee’s as honest unless there is reason to believe otherwise. The Prime Minister claimed that the charter was a significant step to assure “fair, courteous and rational” behaviour by the department. As understood from the Prime Minister’s speech, as long as the taxpayers are honest and compliant, are keeping accurate records and are paying on time, the tax department will ensure their protection from any irrationality.
So, what changes with a “Citizen’s Charter” being announced? What is a Citizen’s Charter?
As per the Government of India’s Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions, a “Citizen’s Charter is a document which represents a systematic effort to focus on the commitment of the Organisation towards its Citizens in respects of Standard of Services, Information, Choice and Consultation, Non-discrimination and Accessibility, Grievance Redress, Courtesy and Value for Money. This also includes expectations of the Organisation from the Citizen for fulfilling the commitment of the Organisation.”
Sounds brilliant! That is quite reassuring. In that case, if the tax department does not follow the objective of the Citizen’s Charter, can one approach the court to get its grievance addressed? Absolutely not! Yes, that is correct, a Citizen’s Charter is nothing more than a wall hanging in every tax officer’s cabin that creates no pressure on the officer to follow its obectives. The Ministry of Personnel had earlier also clarified that “the Citizen’s Charter is not legally enforceable and, therefore, is non-justiciable. However, it is a tool for facilitating the delivery of services to citizens with specified standards, quality and time frame etc. with commitments from the Organisation and its clients.”. It is a settled principle in law that a Government cannot go back on the promises made to its citizens and it is the duty of the executive and judiciary to ensure the fulfillment of such promises. However, this principle does not stand tall insofar a Charter is concerned.
Thus, what good is a document, the promises of which are not guaranteed to the citizen? In my opinion, a charter is a hollow document that serves no purpose other than making the Prime Minister’s speech more illustrious. It does not take away the promises of faceless assessment made by the Government but also does not eliminate the possibility of assessee grievances in the years to come.
One of the purposes of a Charter is that a citizen can demand certain standard of service from the government body. However, anyone who has been to a government department once, will tell you what “demanding” anything from the concerned officer will get you. “Demanding” is done only from one end of the table and we all know which end is that. Therefore, it is with much eagerness that the taxpayers would like to witness the shift towards a faceless and seamless assessments plan, because the cumulative experiences of taxpayers in India strongly indicates that we do not have logistical capability or bandwidth to ensure that presently. As American Leader Gordon B. Hinckley famously said “You can’t build a great building on a weak foundation. You must have a solid foundation if you’re going to have a strong superstructure.”