The introduction of a cow surcharge in Rajasthan means that anyone who makes a lease agreement, loans money or rents property, will have to pay an additional surcharge of 10% on stamp duty.
The BJP-led Rajasthan government, in an unprecedented step, introduced a surcharge for cow protection on all non-judicial instruments last week. This effectively means that anyone who makes a lease agreement, or loans money or rents property, will have to pay an additional surcharge of 10% on stamp duty from now on.
The finance department’s decision to introduce this new surcharge draws from chief minister Vasundhara Raje Scindia’s proposal, presented in her budget speech last year, that a surcharge for providing basic facilities for cows will be introduced. She had, however, exempted judicial stamps, revenue and insurance tickets from the proposed order.
Since an additional 10% will be levied on stamp duty, it is being called a surcharge instead of a cess, which is charged by the government separately for a specific purpose.
“In exercise of the powers conferred of the Rajasthan Stamp Act, 1998 and in supersession of this department’s notification, state government hereby order surcharge at the rate of 10 per cent on stamp duty payable on all instruments for the purposes of conservation and propagation of cow and its progeny,” stated the March 31 order.
Interestingly, Rajasthan is the only Indian state to have a dedicated ministry for cow welfare, headed by minister Otaram Devasi. Devasi, who belongs to the traditionally livestock-dependent Rabari community, addresses himself as “Gaupalan Mantri (cow-welfare minister)”.
Yet, one of the biggest incidents of cattle deaths, caused by starvation and lack of care, in recent times has been reported from Rajasthan. Last year, when the media highlighted the poor plight of cattle in the state’s biggest cow shelter, the Hingonia Gaushala, the Rajasthan government was forced to admit that over 8,000 cows had died between January 2016 to July 2016 and that over 1,000 cows died every month during this period.
Although the ministry gets around 11% of the entire land registrations revenue, the state government last year announced that it needed between Rs 200 crore and Rs 500 crore for the more than 5 lakh cattle in Rajasthan, the Indian Express reported.
Last year, Punjab, under the former Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal)-BJP government, had introduced a cow cess and Rajasthan is the second to follow suit.
The issue of cow protection is being aggressively pursued by saffron groups in north India – recently leading to the murder of a cattle rearer Pehlu Khan in Alwar. RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat went on to demand a pan-Indian law for it and the Gujarat government went to the extent of amending the state animal preservation law to include life imprisonment as punishment for cow slaughter.
However, the imposition of cesses and surcharges for it have come into question. Several experts and politicians view this as the BJP government’s backdoor means to advance its age-old Hindutva agenda, and also as a way to indirectly burden people with economically-unsound taxes.
While the BJP leaders have justified this measure as one leap towards implementing the Directive Principles of State Policy, which advocates cow protection, the opposition is not convinced.
A Rashtriya Janata Dal spokesperson saw this as BJP’s way to distract people from actual issues of social justice. “If anything has to be protected, it is the lives of Dalits and Muslims. The government should immediately have two cesses – one that is used to revamp security machinery to protect innocent lives from rogue gau rakshaks (cow vigilantes) and the other to protect constitutional values. As a nation, we are forgetting our past,” he said.
Senior CPI (M) leader Mohammed Salim also criticised the move. “First, they manufactured the hype on gau raksha and then imposed this burden on people. Traditionally, people have been rearing, breeding, protecting and feeding cows without having to pay any surcharge and tax. Now the new brand of gau raksha has actually become a cash cow for the government and many non-state actors. They are only interested in milking the cow.”
While a large part of the criticisms came from the opposition and may be natural, economists, too, have panned the move.
Noted economist and an expert on black money, Arun Kumar, saw the move as flawed. “Putting surcharge on stamp duty does not seem like a good idea. As it is, there is a high level of black income in realty sector. By putting a surcharge on stamp duty, you are actually incentivising undervaluation of property – a huge problem in the real estate market,” he told The Wire.
“There could have been some kind of tax for cow protection. But why did the state government levy a surcharge? That to me is the most important question. I think the state government did this because it no longer controls Value-Added-Tax (VAT). VAT is out of states’ control now. Power of states have gone down in terms of raising additional taxes and fixing tax rates,” he added.
Indeed, the Centre has kept the realty sector out of the forthcoming GST regime. Perhaps, that additional surcharge on non-judicial instruments like lease agreements may prove to be helpful for the state treasury.
Kumar said that instead of levying different taxes, the issue of cow protection should have been dealt at the social rather than government level. “If one raises awareness instead of imposing it on people, many individual organisations may voluntarily contribute towards raising capital for cattle protection,” he said.