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Tax hike makes gardens see red

Guwahati/Silchar, Oct. 4: Usually preoccupied with getting bonus payments over with at this time of the year, Assam’s tea industry has found one more reason to be hassled this season.

The cabinet’s decision to hike land revenue by 80 per cent — up from Rs 12 to Rs 22 per bigha in the Brahmaputra Valley and from Rs 9 to Rs 16 in the Barak Valley — has had almost all associations of the industry crying foul. If the hike isn’t annoying enough for an industry looking for relief rather than pain, the government has pegged the rates with retrospective effect from June 2003.

The chairman of the Assam Tea Planters’ Association (ATPA), Raj Baruah, said the proportion of the hike was absurd and inopportune. “This hike is a big burden on the industry. Many gardens will have no option but to close down.”

The ATPA chief said the industry was already burdened by “mammoth social costs” that the government was loath to reduce.

Baruah’s counterpart in the North East Tea Association, Manoj Jalan, described the hike in land revenue as one of the biggest blows to the crisis-ridden tea industry in recent times. “We will fight against the move. We are not in a position to take such a big burden at this time.”

Jalan said the cabinet’s decision was all the more unfair because governments in other tea-growing states were trying to help the industry come out of a decade-long recession. West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, he pointed out, had waived the cess on green leaf recently. “But despite repeated appeals, our government has done nothing and, now, this added burden.”

The secretary of the Assam Branch of Indian Tea Association, Dhiraj Kakoti, said the industry would not take it lying down. “The government cannot take a unilateral decision. The industry should have been consulted on the issue.”

Tea associations intend to get together in this “hour of crisis” and devise a strategy to pressure the government into modifying, if not reversing, the decision.

Government spokesman Himanta Biswa Sarma argued that the hike was “modest” and “mutually agreed upon” during meetings with the Consultative Committee of Plantation Associations (CCPA).

Associations representing plantations in Assam, however, denied that the government ever held discussions with the CCPA on this issue.

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