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Tax plus torment for Salt Lake Tax first, lunch can wait

Salt Lake is paying the price of a property-tax holiday with torture as interest.

“I have two bills, so do I need to write two cheques or a common one? Is the total tax payable mentioned under the head ‘property tax’ or ‘net amount’? These bills make no sense,” complained H. Sen of AE Block, sweating under the mid-March sun.

Sen made three trips to Poura Bhavan on Tuesday. The first time he returned after seeing the length of the queue, the second time he managed to find out the amount he would need to pay, and the third time he came was with a cheque mentioning the correct amount.

Ashok Mukherjee, a 72-year-old resident of Karunamoyee, stood in the queue for five hours. He had arrived at the municipality building around 11am to find the queue so long that it stretched till the footpath and beyond. His knee problem made it difficult to stand, and the atmosphere inside the building was stifling.

“It’s time for lunch but I won’t go without paying this bill today,” said Mukherjee, leaning against the wall for support. “I am feeling a little dizzy now.”

Many residents said it was almost as if they were being punished for not having to pay property tax for up to five years because of disputes over valuation. Three cash counters and two for cheques — open from 10.30am till 3.30pm, with a half-an-hour lunch break from 2pm — struggled to cater to the queues of taxpayers that started building up from 8.30am.

Municipality chairperson Krishna Chakraborty was apologetic about the chaos, but said her hands were tied.

Properties in Salt Lake were first revalued in the 1990s, to which the Bidhannagar (Salt Lake) Welfare Association objected and moved court. Thus began a prolonged litigation that ended in 2006 with the Supreme Court terming the valuation procedure “arbitrary and unscientific”.

With the civic body turning property-tax payment into an almost voluntary exercise between 2007 and 2010, many residents either did not pay anything or paid only a part of their dues. In 2010, a new board was formed and it immediately initiated talks to arrive at a property valuation formula agreeable to the Bidhannagar (Salt Lake) Welfare Association and the state government.

The bills sent out since March 1 include all past dues, albeit without any interest. But for residents of the township, the trouble of paying these pending bills has been more taxing than any monetary interest might have been.

“My husband is bedridden. Who else will pay our tax? So here I am,” said Juthika Chatterjee, 73.

Some elderly taxpayers found sympathetic faces volunteering to keep their place in the queue.

Those feeling suffocated would step out to the open-air staircase for some time, while a few lucky ones found chairs to rest their weary legs and maybe even catch a wink.

According to officials, the queues would get longer with barely 10 days to go for the March 31 deadline and many of the 22,000 property owners in Salt Lake yet to pay their taxes. “I am ready to pay a late fee if I can get past these queues,” said Aparajita Maitra, a teacher from AB Block who had skipped school to pay tax on Tuesday. “I have an ailing mother at home and I can’t wait here till eternity.”

Maitra walked out of Poura Bhavan at 4pm, without paying.

Some residents suggested at least 10 counters be opened, others wanted payments to be allowed at different banks, ward offices or online.

Ashim Banerjee of HB Block said: “Didi ke bolben, eta sajano ghotona noy (Tell Didi, our troubles are not fabricated).”

A few walked out with their sense of humour intact. “I shall frame the bill and hang it in my living room,” exclaimed Pradip Dutta of DL Block after his five-hour ordeal.

At 3.30pm, when the counters were scheduled to close, there were still 150 people waiting to pay their taxes.

An official asked the personnel manning the counter to continue accepting payments and Jayanta Basak walked out of the building at 6.15pm, finally free to have his lunch!

Were you taxed paying property tax in Salt Lake? Tell ttmetro@abpmail.com