Tuesday’s strike by medicine dealers adds a new — and dangerous — dimension to the cult of protest-mongering. The medicine trade and hospitals are usually exempted from bandhs and other shutdowns in consideration for the sick and others needing urgent medical help. By deciding to close their shops, the traders not only behaved irresponsibly but also set an ominous precedent. The All India Chemists’ and Druggists’ Association, which called the strike, has thus fallen in the company of political parties and groups which think nothing of disrupting public life to score a point over their rivals. It is deplorable that the association betrayed such insensitivity to the suffering of people for whom an uninterrupted supply of medicine is a matter of life and death. Ironically, the association behaved the way strike-happy politicians do; it sought to justify its action in the name of the people. Its argument that the introduction of value-added tax would raise the prices of medicine and thereby inconvenience the common people is at best facetious. It takes no great insight into the trade to assume that it would pass the additional tax burden to the consumer, who will have little option but to buy medicines at higher prices. The buyers, and not the sellers, actually have some cause for complaint.
This is not to say that the traders’ anxiety is wholly unfounded. And, it is not only the medicine trade that is uncomfortable with the introduction of VAT. Only last week, other traders in Calcutta and other parts of Bengal had organized yet another bandh in protest against the new tax. Even petroleum dealers and textile traders are believed to be planning similar bandhs. VAT is to replace all indirect taxes, including the sales tax that traders had to pay so far. A large section of them may find it cumbersome to maintain separate accounts of their new tax liabilities. Small and unorganized trade may be particularly inconvenienced. None of these initial problems can however detract from the rationale for the introduction of VAT. One of the objectives of the new system is to ensure transparency and accountability in business, and traders cannot ethically take exception to this. It is also aimed at helping state governments mobilize additional resources. Even if the medicine dealers have a case, closing down this emergency service cannot be a legitimate means to pursue it. It is to be hoped that the association would see sense and drop the idea of an indefinite bandh. No government can keep the wheels of the economy running if traders play spoilsports.