Another Flawed Intervention of the Central Government in J & K

Now there will be a complete integration of the J & K,” uttered a senior police officer (not appropriate to name him) who escorted us from the Srinagar airport to the house of Mohammad Yousuf Tarigami, four times MLA and a leader of CPI(M) in J & K; he was under house arrest at that time. Sitaram Yechury, general secretary  of the CPI(M) was allowed to visit J & K and meet Tarigami on an order of the Supreme Court on his ‘habeas corpus’ writ petition. I had accompanied Yechury to this first-ever entry of a political leader in Kashmir, after the abrogation of Articles 370 & 35A, since August 5, 2019. Little, he (police officer) must have realized that this so-called integration and scuttling the ‘autonomy’ will eventually rob the residents of J & K even of their minimum guaranteed provision of decision making. Not to even talk about legislating for themselves, even a decision to levy a property tax, which is a state subject under the Constitution of India is also now being taken by the union government.

Who Decides For Whom?

The ‘extraordinary Gazette notification’ from the ministry of home affairs, union of India, dated October 5, 2020, explicitly mentions the provision to collect property tax from the urban centres in J & K. It is rather bizarre to believe that the encroachment in decision making is not just limited to the provisions of the state legislature but even into the domain of the urban local bodies. The urban development which is a state subject as mentioned above is usurped by the union government that too by the ministry of home affairs and not the urban development ministry.

New Delhi is now deciding for J & K residents how and what will be the trajectory of urban development in the region! It smacks more of treating J & K as a colony rather than integrating the region with the mainland.

The entire process to levy property tax is faulty. Firstly, the elected representatives of the city governments i.e., the urban local bodies are not consulted in the process. But even before that according to the 74th constitutional provision, which embarks on the functions of the city development in the country, the basic premise – the will of the people through its representatives is of utmost importance. Let us have a look at how the elected representatives in the urban centres are placed. In Kashmir valley nearly 50 per cent of the posts of elected representatives are still lying vacant. Those who have got elected have not polled more than 10 per cent of the total votes. So where is the will of the people?

Take for example, in Anantnag district, there are 10 ULBs and of the total 139 ward councillor seats, nearly 56 (40.3 per cent) are lying vacant. Similarly, in Kulgam district, out of 40 seats 26 are lying vacant (65 per cent). In Pulwama, out of 69, 58 are lying vacant (84.1 per cent); in Shopian 52.9 per cent are lying vacant; in Budgam, out of 72, 33 are lying vacant (45.8 per cent); in Baramulla, out of 93, 35 are lying vacant(37.6 per cent); likewise in Kupwara and Bandipora, nearly 30 per cent of the seats are lying vacant.

As is evident, from the list a large number of these city governments are unrepresented. The first and foremost thing that the government must do is to engage the people in the decision-making process and involve them in it. The vacant posts must be filled up through genuine elections and then on top of this should other layers of urban governance come.

In Jammu region though the elections were held to the local bodies but even in this region, there is no consultation process to levy the property tax.

Secondly, the power to legislate in the J& K lies with the legislature. As stated above whether property tax should be levied or not must be decided by the legislature and only they are competent under the constitution of India. Urban development is a state subject and just by keeping the assembly at bay, usurping the powers of the J & K legislature to the President of India and then promulgating such obfuscating laws will only further alienate the people. Technically this may sound fine, but politically it is an attack on the people of J & K. At least the government of India should have waited for the election of the J & K legislature and allowed them to legislate in such matters.

This coercion will not help. The union government must first initiate dialogue with the people and the political parties of the region and hold elections to the J & K legislature. The union government should also keep in mind that already the petitions challenging the abrogation of Articles 370 & 35 A are pending in the Supreme Court and hence in such a background to rush up matters would only prove perilous to the government and the residents of the region.

Provisions: Copy And Paste Model

Apart from the faulty process of the enactment of the law on property tax the provisions of the property tax are also neither ‘well thought off’, nor adept to the circumstances existing in the region of J & K. It looks like a copy and paste model of any other municipality template of property tax.

Firstly, it is not clear as to why a ‘unit area method’ of property tax collection was chosen instead of ‘annual rateable value’. There should have been an explanation of it. The unit area method is the one prescribed to almost all the urban local bodies not realizing that different cities have different forms of property ownership and property value in the country. The unit area method as mentioned in the gazette will calculate the property tax based on the total area under occupation (for the built-in area) multiplied by the different values. A 25 per cent concession will be awarded to self-occupied properties.

Secondly, experiences of other states, especially mountain states should have been considered. Take, for example, Shimla, one of the oldest municipalities of the country (1851), till five years back there was 100 per cent exemption on property tax for self-use less than 100 square metre area. This provided much relief to a majority of the people as more than 70 per cent had less than 100 square meter house. For commercial properties, one can understand that levying property tax is an option. In Punjab state, the residents living in urban centres and who have property less than 103 square meter area for self use are completely exempted from property tax. In J & K such a provision is not kept in the property tax provisions decided by the MHA.

Thirdly, it is not clear as to who will decide the different multiple factors to calculate the property tax. These factors could vary from ‘self-use’; ‘age of building’;  ‘form of construction’; ‘area of the city’; ‘commercial use’, etc. Also what will be the base value of the property is not clear. It is also ambiguous who will decide on all these issues. Will a decision be taken at the ‘Srinagar/Jammu’ level or will it be decided by respective local bodies?  

Fourthly, in case the decision for deciding values is taken at the state level, then it will be erroneous because the value of properties is not the same for different towns and cities. The value may be higher in Srinagar than in Baramulla, likewise,  the value will be different for towns in Jammu region.

The government of India in haste has levied property tax on the residents of the J & K not realizing that “one size does not fit all” is an old maxim, but amply relevant in contemporary times as well. Such form of integration to only fleece the residents by extracting property tax from them without embarking on a scientific process of urban development will only prove perilous to the central government and its sinister intentions.

The writer is former deputy mayor of Shimla