Srinagar: In mounting troubles for the BJP in Jammu and Kashmir, Jammu-based businesses and trade bodies have called for a “symbolic” shutdown on Saturday, March 11, against the imposition of property tax in the union territory.
The call comes amid a massive uproar in the Kashmir Valley, where opposition parties, businesses, trade bodies and even the local BJP unit have demanded a rollback of the “unilateral” decision which will come into effect across the union territory from April 1.
Arun Gupta, president of the Jammu Chamber of Commerce and Industry (JCCI) which has issued the bandh call, said that the prerogative to impose property tax lies with the elected representatives. “We are not against the property tax but the manner in which it is being imposed. J&K is without an elected government, so the administration should allow the elected municipalities to take a decision on the issue,” he said.
Gupta claimed that the Jammu Bar Association has also extended support to the bandh call but the Bar has not issued any statement so far. The transporters of Jammu are also undecided on extending support. “The issue concerns all people of Jammu and I am confident that they will support the bandh,” Gupta told The Wire.
Part of ‘land reforms’
In October 2020, the Union Ministry of Home Affairs, as part of the larger reforms to strengthen the institutions of local self-governance under the Panchayat Raj, cleared the decks for J&K to impose property tax in the urban areas, which fall under municipalities and municipal councils. J&K is the only state where property tax is not imposed. Before Article 370 was read down in 2019, successive political dispensations shelved the issue for the fear of public backlash.
On February 21 this year, Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha’s administration made a move on the issue when J&K’s Housing and Urban Development Department notified “rules for levy, assessment and collection of property tax in the municipalities and municipal councils”, invoking Section 71A of the Jammu and Kashmir Municipal Act, 2000 read with Sub-Section 1 of Section 65 and Sub Section 1 of Section 73 of the Act.
According to the J&K Municipal Act, municipalities are empowered to impose “taxes on lands and buildings or vacant lands or both situated within the municipal area”. Section 71A empowers the “government” to “make such interim arrangements for the assessment and collection of” property tax for three years which can be extended to five years after a consensus is reached between the municipality and the government on the basis of “good and sufficient reasons.”
Official data shows that the property tax will cover around 5.2 lakh houses and about 1 lakh shops in urban areas of J&K. Residential houses with a built-up area up to 1,000 sq ft have been exempted from the tax, which officials estimate will add Rs 150 crore annually to the Rs 900 crore grant allotted to J&K’s urban local bodies.
‘Bypassed local bodies’
Speaking with reporters at a hurriedly-called press conference on Friday, March 9, in Jammu, the JCCI president said that the property tax was being imposed on Jammu and Kashmir “without consultations or seeking suggestions of the stakeholders”. Opposing the decision, Gupta said that the law empowers local bodies to impose property tax, “The administration has bypassed local bodies by issuing an SRO. People of Jammu have no advisor (representative) whom we could approach (to suspend the decision). It is unfortunate that the LG administration is imposing property tax which is the prerogative of the elected government,” he said.
Gupta said that the administration has justified the tax to increase developmental grants to local bodies. “But the governments are run on taxes paid by big businesses. We have been asking for extension of the lease deeds of business establishments for months but the issue remains unresolved. The administration should remain cautious. These decisions are destroying traders in Jammu,” he said.
The JCCI is the leading conglomerate of businesses in the Jammu region, which is the stronghold of the ruling BJP, and the call for a bandh is likely to build more pressure on the J&K administration – which was forced to put the recent “anti-encroachment” drive on hold following massive public outrage across the union territory.
In a rare show of unanimity, the local BJP unit in Kashmir has also echoed the concerns expressed by leading political parties such as the National Conference, Peoples Democratic Party and Congress and smaller parties like Peoples Conference and Apni Party along with Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry, a leading grouping of businesses, who have urged the administration to rollback the decision.
LG blames ‘vested interests’
However, while LG Sinha has indicated that the administration was open to a dialogue, it has also launched an offensive against the detractors of the tax, arguing that the monies will be used for improving services in urban areas. Last month, a media campaign was launched to counter the heat, with readers of several English and Urdu dailies published out of J&K greeted by half-page ‘Property Tax: Truth & Facts’ advertisements on the front pages.
With the flame sparked by the property tax refusing to die down, Sinha has also accused the political parties and “vested interests” of “instigating people” and “deliberately trying to spread misinformation and create a false narrative” on the issue. “It’s beyond comprehension that some people had nurtured a mindset that no tax would be paid to India,” Sinha remarked at an event recently.
The JCCI president also said that while the administration has publicised the tax slab of residential properties, there was no clarity on the rates for commercial properties. “The factual position of the tax rate on commercial properties is being hidden. This attitude to impose decisions on the public is unfortunate. The JCCI is in favour of talks, but where is the table? Whom are we supposed to speak with?” he said.
Gupta said that the symbolic bandh on Saturday is a part of “Jammu’s resistance” against the property tax. “If the administration doesn’t change its decision, we will continue our resistance,” Gupta said, flanked by heads of various trade organisations and JCCI office bearers.
Edited by Amrit B.L.S.