Virtual engagement with the government

Sajjad Zohir |

The Business Standard |
14 July, 2021 |


Despite the Cabinet Division’s instruction to all government offices to conduct their official activities virtually, income tax office asked randomly selected regular taxpayers to be physically present at the office for audit

A friend of mine received a notice from her income tax office mentioning that her tax file for the last assessment year was selected for audit and she has to submit several supporting documents. She was instructed to be physically present at the tax office, or send a representative, on a specific date.

If anyone ever looked into the data on tax files ‘randomly selected’ for audits and compared those with the ones that were ‘not selected’, my educated guess suggests that the more organised submissions and law-abiding taxpayers are more likely to be included in the former.

The rationale for such bias in selection may lie in two interlinked motives of a tax office. It allows them to prove to higher authority that the office is doing a good job. By the same token, the irregular files in a given office get extra time (or, forever) to avoid closer scrutiny from higher authority.

This is not the first time that my friend came across the farcical ‘random’ selection of her file for audit. However, the strengthened vigilance by tax authority during worsening pandemic situation, and that also for a regular taxpayer, came as a surprise to all her acquaintances.

Interestingly, on the day my friend received the notice, on 11th July 2021, the local dailies (TBS, DS, etc.) carried a news stating that the Cabinet Division asked all government offices to conduct their official activities virtually.

The circular reportedly instructed that all official activities of all public offices be carried out virtually (through e-document, e-mail, e-tendering, SMS, WhatsApp, etc). Seeing this, my friend’s family contacted the tax officer and sought a virtual meeting and offered to send the hard copies to the tax-office either by a messenger or via email.

The response was polite, but clearly a No.  In spite of a record-high Covid-19 deaths (230 over the preceding 24 hours), highly concentrated in 55+ age groups, the tax office appeared oblivious and insisted on having someone in person, even if it was for only five minutes!

The age, the risk of infection and most of all, the Cabinet Division’s notice on holding virtual meetings, did not seem to matter – having a physical meeting was a necessity!

As an onlooker, I learned to appreciate the awkward manifestation of ‘livelihood’ that could assert against fear of deaths, while deaths due to lack of livelihoods continue to be ignored. Hearing the same story from several others, I have been wondering about the prospects of a ‘digital world’, particularly in the fields of e-governance, when certain ‘invisible’ transactions can only be ensured via meeting in the (visible) ‘non-virtual world’!

The above narrative should not be viewed to undermine the importance of the notice served on virtual meetings by the Cabinet Division. However, the purpose may be better served if it is made mandatory to include valid email addresses of the respective authority in all G2P and G2B communications. Ideally, individual citizens and businesses should have no obligation to respond if the virtual route for communication is not made transparent.

Dr Sajjad Zohir is the Executive Director of Economic Research Group (ERG)