Engr. K Vijayachandran F.I.E

Frequent disruption of truck movement is a unique feature in the Walayar check-post of Kerala. Towards the end of fiscal year 2014-15, AIMTC (All India Motor Transport Congress) had stopped truck movement at Walayar on the Tamilnadu-Kerala border for several days. TV channels were showing the kilometers long queues of trucks loaded with commodities, waiting for clearance. Regional and national newspapers were flooded with statements and counter statements by AIMTC and Kerala Government.

The Hindu of 1st April had articulated the truckers’ views as below: “Out of 1663 check posts across the country, delay from 10 to 12 hours was experienced only at Walayar check post, and despite repeated requisitions and agitation for the last few years, Kerala government failed to address the problem…

….Nearly 3,000 lorries cross to Kerala from this check post carrying perishables, vegetables, eggs, chicken and electronic and electric goods valued over Rs 500 crore and lorries have to wait nearly 12 hours to get clearance, which has seriously affected the delivery schedule, due to which the vegetables and other perishables get spoiled, AIMTC sources said.”

Given below are excerpts from another newspaper report: “Increasing counters at the Walayar check post at Kerala to ten from three, installing scanning machines, a green channel for goods like steel and cement, parking lot, basic amenities like drinking water and toilets are the major demands.

…Presently, sales tax authorities of Kerala take a minimum of ten hours to a maximum of fifteen hours to clear a single truck at Walayar, he said. It happens nowhere else. Across 1,268 border check posts in the country, the average clearance time is about an hour,” he added.

… Stating that about 3,000 vehicles on an average “should cross Walayar point,” he however said this often “does not happen” as vehicles gets delayed at check posts. Kerala authorities still use “age-old” system to check consignments by piercing the bags with needle, he said, adding “we demand installation of scanners which will ensure quick clearance of vehicles.”.

….Kerala Finance Minister KM Mani had yesterday urged the striking truckers to call off the agitation, saying steps had already taken to improve facilities at the check-post. He said it has been decided to open more counters and steps have been taken to acquire 30 acres of land for providing basic facilities.”

Such long dispatches by reporters from Walayar and assurances by ministers and bureaucrats are not new. Two years ago, the then Chief Secretary Bharat Bhushan had said that Kerala government will take up construction of an integrated check-post at Walayar to end traffic blocks and the alleged corruption in its functioning. Talking to media persons in Palakkad he had said, once the land acquisition is cleared by the court, construction of the integrated check-post will begin. He said for speedy clearance of goods vehicles, a scanning machine and weighing machine will be set up at the check-post. (Hindu 27-10-2013)

Five years ago in 2010: According to a news report of April 22, president of the Federation of Kerala Goods Transporters, N.A. Mohammed Kutty, had alleged that the then Finance Minister T.M. Thomas Isaac’s efforts to make the Walayar check post corruption-free have failed for want of support from other departments. He had said that vehicles coming from other States to Kerala are held up at the check post for 10 to 12 hours. He said the system of checking goods using sharp iron rods by the excise department officials had caused several problems to the transporters.

Six years ago in 2009: I have on record, my own email letter of June 15 addressed to Dr. Thomas Isaac, warning him against the proposal to build five-star facilitation centers at the Check Posts, starting with Walayar. The idea is being pursued even now by the UDF ministry, as evidenced by the former Chief Secretary Bharat Bhushan and the Finance Minister himself.

Kerala Government maintains a dozen border check-posts: Three of them are in Palakkadu district and two each in Wayanadu and Kasargod districts and one each in districts other than Kochi and Kozhikodu which have no borders with the neighboring states. Five of them border with Tamilnadu and seven with Karnataka.

Among the twelve check-posts, only the Walayar post near Palghat City on the NH-47 hits the news headlines, and thanks to the economic geography of the region, this check-post is most popular and accounts for the lion’s share of inter-state traffic. The high volume of traffic is liked by most officers of motor vehicle and commercial taxes departments and disliked by some, depending on their attitude to corruption at the borders. These two departments are the most corrupt every Indian state and Kerala is no exemption.

Motor vehicles departments are the custodians of border check-posts in all states, and the facility is shared by the commercial taxes departments: Even other departments like excise, environment, health, home etc also make use of this basic infrastructure owned and operated by the taxation departments that substantially support the finances of state governments. Both these departments have been computerized to the teeth with all sorts of hardware and software in most of the states. Gujarat was a pioneer in computerization: How a computerized check-post in Gujarat function is illustrated in Box-2 and the pattern is similar in other states.

Karnataka with its SUVEGA packages, developed in cooperation with National Informatics Center (NIC), appears to have far more advanced features than Gujarat: However, neither has achieved any breakthrough in cost reduction, customer satisfaction or efficiency improvements. There is no indication that computerization has helped in containing corruption either and because of the numerous loop-holes corrupt practices have survived the massive computerization programs.

One of the reasons for the delay is said to be the multiplicity of counters from where the truckers have to seek clearances. Some driver were of the view that the main reason for the delays in Kerala Checkposts was that many officials did not accept bribes and insisted on proper documents. A recent newspaper report had quoted one Raju, a driver from Punjab, saying: “It’s our companies that need to give us all documents. We suffer here for days in sun and rain because they do not give us proper documents.” Money changes hand and issues get settled across the table amicably, in the next shift or the next day!

Kerala is far less corrupt or only half-corrupt, compared to most other Indian states as revealed by studies of Transparency International ( Ref. my article in the Passline of Sept 2011). In states like Karnataka, Gujarat or Mharashtra, where the culture of single point clearances by Government agencies has come to stay: bribes are paid up at a single point and then shared by corrupt officials. This sort of institutionalized corruption, possibly, does not exist in Kerala check-posts.

Computerization should have improved the productivity of staff and brought down the operating costs of taxation departments apart from improving the quality of service. Surprisingly these objectives of computerization have been hardly achieved in any state and Kerala is not an exemption. Users of Kerala check-posts feel harassed, operating cost per unit tax yield have not shown any tendency to come and there is a demand for increasing the number of counters and staff strength and also for better amenities for longer working hours for the check-posts.

Transporters have rightly criticized the primitive methods of inspection by that damage the consignments and the general belief is that 100 % computerization of documents and use of sophisticated scanners will improve the quality of inspection, eliminate corruption and reduce costs. But this has not happened and is unlikely to happen, so long as one hundred percent physical inspection is mandatory and insisted on at the check-posts.

Industry uses random sampling methods based on well established statistical theories in order to reduce the volume of physical inspection. Such methods are used extensively in quality control and even safety audits. Internal Revenue Service (IRS) of USA uses the statistical random sampling techniques and subjects only 1.1 % of the tax accounts to detail audit. Random selection is made by the computer as in the case of a lottery. The accounts selected in random are then subjected to detailed investigation and there is no escape if caught guilty. Fear of God compels the vast majority to comply and tax leaks get minimized at very low costs.

Income Tax and Service Tax departments in the country are getting ready to adopt this system practiced in USA and the developers of SUVEGA packages for Karnataka sales tax have been recommending the use of random sampling techniques for Karnataka check-posts. This writer had pleaded with Shri Viswanatha Menon as well as Dr. Thomas Isaac for the switch over to random sampling techniques in the entire Sales Tax administration in Kerala, during their tenures as Finance Minister.

Opposition from the department of commercial taxes and their employees were natural. The switch-over would have brought in the much needed transparency in the administration of sales tax, as well as in the management of check-posts. It could have ended the prevailing system of presumptive or arbitrary method of tax assessment by officers and encouraged the business to keep proper accounts and to file honest returns.

But, there is the difficulty: More than three-fourth of state’s own revenue is from the 4700 strong Sales Tax department and per employee contribution was Rs.6.76 Crore during the last fiscal. Better tax yield as well as improved quality and efficacy of administration are assured if the above said basic reform is implemented. But no politician wants to risk the displeasure of a few thousand employees and upsetting the apple cart.

eod  published in passlinemay 2015