A key role-player staged an entry in the water-tax drama on Tuesday, adding a twist in the tale and setting up a dramatic denouement.
The state government, dangling a carrot — in the form of the Urban Reforms Incentive Fund — in front of the Trinamul Congress-controlled Calcutta Municipal Corporation (CMC), also gave it the stick — roll back the water-tax rollback or wash your hands of the central development grant.
Sending out the masked message that the Urban Reforms Incentive Fund was linked to the water-tax issue, the urban development and municipal affairs department notice to the CMC asks it to decide, once and for all, whether it will tax most citizens for the water it supplies. If the answer is in the negative, the positive benefits of the fund could well be denied.
The CMC has been quick on the draw. According to member, mayor-in-council (roads), Anup Chatterjee, the CMC will make it clear that it has all along extracted a fee for drinking water. “We will tell the government that we are reverting to the old system of charging for water instead of implementing the proposed method of taxation,” explained Chatterjee, who has been directed to deal with the slippery matter.
The rollback last month momentarily even threatened to split the Trinamul down the middle. Mamata Banerjee insisted that it would be politically unwise to implement the new form of water-tax before the parliamentary polls or the CMC elections.
But the group led by mayor Subrata Mukherjee insisted that the water-tax system must stay, as it came with a whole lot of strings attached. The new method had already been decided by the state government and the civic board could not swim against the water-tax tide, insisted Mukherjee and his men.
Ultimately, and predictably, the party chief prevailed over the mayor. But the government, led by urban development and municipal affairs minister Asok Bhattacharya, claimed that the rollback move was all wrong.
The circular, sent to the CMC on Monday evening, spells out just what the Trinamul-controlled board would stand to lose if it stuck to its rollback route — a share of the Urban Reforms Incentive Fund from Delhi.
Mayor-in-council Chatterjee explained what the civic body’s defence would be. “The CMC was all along taking money for the water it supplied,” he insisted. “Only the method of charging it was different,” he added, explaining that the criterion for taxing water used to be the size of the ferrule (addresses receiving water via ferrules of 20-mm and 25-mm diameters were taxed). This, however, meant that only about 20 per cent of Calcutta’s house-owners were being taxed for their water.
The amended rules, which made the annual valuation of property the criterion, decreed that all addresses having an annual valuation of more than Rs 5,000 would have to pay for water. But, argued Chatterjee, most addresses in wards 101 to 141 (said to be CPM bastions) would still escape the tax net. Also, the new system would raise revenue by only four per cent, not enough to justify the household heartburn.