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'In British times, the opium trade protected people from taxes'

Q&A: C P Bhatia

Ishita Ayan Dutt  |  Kolkata 

C P Bhatia

Assistant Commissioner of Income Tax in Kolkata C P Bhatia is not just a taxman by profession. He thinks tax even in his leisure time, his hobby being researching the history of taxation. He’s still collecting material for a possible book, though the exercise, he insists, is in the preliminary stages. In an interview with Ishita Ayan Dutt, Bhatia talks about his research that led him to discover the grave of James Wilson, the man who introduced India to taxation in 1860. This being the 150 th year of Wilson’s death, Bhatia has written a small pamphlet on the father of taxation and played a leading role in the restoration of his grave.

What draws you to research on the history of taxation?
This is my hobby. I was previously in the training department and used to prepare training modules so naturally, I had to read a lot and was particularly interested in the history of taxation.

When was the first Income Tax Act enacted?
It was in 1860, then 1886, 1918, 1921, 1961. The present Act dates back to 1961 and is modified year after year depending on the direction of business that the government wants to adopt.

What does your research show on how taxation in India changed?

Taxation shows the direction of business that the government wants to promote. Today, cigarettes and liquor are heavily taxed because the government wants to discourage these businesses. Throughout the British period the most taxed commodity was salt. Clothes were also taxed, but the British spared the from heavy taxation because the government used to earn a lot from the opium trade. In fact, the opium trade protected the from taxation between 1870 and 1900. But the earnings started declining in 1910 following strong opposition. An international opium commission meet was held in 1909 in Shanghai, which discussed whether it was ethical for the government to trade in opium except for medical purpose. As a result, the trade started declining every year and records show that it dropped from 15,760 chests in 1911 to 8,544 chests 1923.

Can you cite some differences in taxation during the British period and now, in terms of the documents?
Now we call for a lot of details that were not required during the British period. In the British period there were different forms for property income, business and so on. Now we have only one form. For the property income form one would have to provide details of all lodgers in the house.

How did you stumble upon James Wilson’s grave?
I came across a gazette that said that James Wilson died on 9, Middleton Street. During that period bodies were buried within 50-100 km, so I visited all the nearby cemeteries and inspected their records. I finally found his tomb very close to my office, then in Chowringhee Square. With the permission of the Christian Burial Board, the tomb has been restored.

What is the main source of your research?
The National Library is my biggest source. I have come across various documents at the library, that I have noted down. I have visited many libraries in the various towns in which I have worked like Dhanbad and Jamshedpur. Some day maybe I will make a collection of this wealth of knowledge and have it published.

First Published: Fri, September 04 2009. 00:21 IST