BS: Why are you agitating against the Navi Mumbai Municipal Corporation (NMMC)? What are your main demands?
Mohan Gurnani: The state government had introduced an `account-based cess' in lieu of octroi in Navi Mumbai. Traders were shifted to the Agricultural Produce Market Complex (APMC) at Navi Mumbai from Mumbai with a view to decongest the city. The shifted markets have now become just distribution centres since 90 to 95 per cent of the goods brought here are sent out mainly to Mumbai and other places. Here, octroi is collected by the local bodies i.e the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC). Any cess imposed by the NMMC on the commodities in the APMC will, therefore, amount to double taxation.
Whats more, the state government had appointed a committee on substitution of octroi, and the committee, in its report, had recommended that the "Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) transactions will be exempt from the levy of cess."
In spite of the above recommendations, and as a goodwill gesture of the traders to participate in the creation of the infrastructure provided by NMMC, we agreed for a 0.1 per cent NMMC cess on the goods subject to the market fee collected by the Mumbai Agricultural Produce Market Committee (MAPMC).
We also put the condition that the cess would be collected by the market committee along with the market fee and passed on to NMMC and that the said rate will not be revised for a period of atleast three years.
The basic idea behind abolition of octroi was to do away with the `octroi nakas which were hindering the free movement of trucks resulting in loss of manhours, fuel etc apart from breeding corruption. If the traders are required to register themselves with the NMMC, submit regular returns to them and give them the freedom to inspect their records, it will mean that every trader's shop will be converted into a `check naka with all its attendant malpractices.
NMMC has now informed us that the existing cess at the rate of 0.1 per cent has been increased to 0.3 per cent, and that the traders should register with the corporation.
We are totally against these steps, and these are our main points of contention with the NMMC. Our demands are that the cess should be reverted to the original rate of 0.1 per cent (which was raised to 0.3 per cent, i.e. up by 200 per cent, within eight months). We also feel that the traders need not get themselves registered with the NMMC.
BS: How are you trying to solve this problem? Have you tried to solve it across-the-board?
MG: We have made frequent representations and also held personal discussions with the NMMC authorities, the market committee and the state government. We have even made representations to the chief minister, the minister for co-operation and the minister for urban development. We have sent letters to the mayor of Navi Mumbai and the guardian minister of Navi Mumbai to appraise them about the unreasonable stance of NMMC. We have not got positive feedback from anybody.
BS: What has been the response of the NMMC?
MG: When the NMMC raised the cess from 0.1 per cent to 0.3 per cent, we vehemently opposed the move, and held personal discussions with the municipal authorities. The municipal commissioner assured us that the matter will be reviewed, and he also promised to reduce the rate from 0.3 per cent. The commissioner then conveyed to us that he has put up the matter before the standing committee for reduction of the rate from 0.3 per cent to 0.2 per cent. However, it was turned down by the NMMC committee. He also told us that since the revenue estimated from APMC did not materialise, and the existing system for recovery of cess through the market committee was not effective, the corporation had decided to enforce the rate of 0.3 per cent and also to change the system of collection by making it mandatory for traders to be registered with NMMC.
BS:: What were the assurances given to you by the govt. when you were asked to shift to Navi Mumbai? Has the government failed totally to keep its commitments?
MG: The shifting of the agricultural commodities markets from Mumbai to Navi Mumbai was a great task by itself involving nearly 25,000 market functionaries such as commission agents, traders, brokers, transport operators and others associated with the markets. Apart from all this, the new place also need many other ancillary services. In short, what it meant was that one whole town was being shifted from one place to another.
Naturally, several assurances were sought for and given by the authorities. These included promises like continuance of the existing trade practices in Navi Mumbai and no fresh taxes on the commodities being shifted from the new markets.
The government went one step ahead and assured us that the market cess, which was 80 paise per trade of Rs 100, would be progressively reduced. This was never implemented by the state government.
To top it all, the NMMC imposed a cess on the commodities. Whats more, the government had assured us that taking into consideration the existing trade practices, they would introduce a separate Bombay Chapter in the Maharashtra Agricultural Produce (Regulation) Act, 1963 for smooth regulation and growth of the markets.
As a precursor to the move, traders were also promised majority representation on the market committee board.
A decade has elapsed but the government has still not taken any necessary action in this regard. (The Market Act has been made applicable to us in March, 1989)
BS: What would be your course of action if the NMMC does not accept your demands?
MG: We have formed a committee called the `Navi Mumbai APMC Vyapari Action Committee consisting of representatives of different market functionaries. The committee mainly comprises of trade organisations like the Navi Mumbai Merchants' Chamber, Grain, Rice and Oilseeds Merchants' Association (Groma), Bombay Gur Merchants Association, Bombay Mudi Bazar Kirana Merchants' Association and Mumbai Dryfruits and Date Merchants Association.
The action committee is watching the developments and deciding on the necessary course of action.
As a first step, we made several representations to the concerned authorities, and also observed a one day token bandh on September 17. Subsequently, we organised a two-day bandh on September 24 and 25.
The action committee has decided to call for an indefinite bandh from October 1 if the grievances are not sorted out by the authorities by that time.
BS: What might be the consequences if your markets are closed for an indefinite period and who would be responsible for it?
MG:: The consumers will be seriously affected by shortages of essential commodities if the markets are closed indefinitely. Even the traders will be affected by loss of business.
However, the markets dealing in fruits, vegetables, onions and potatoes have been exempted from this call as they are highly perishable commodities, and we do not want to hold the consumers to ransom regarding these essential commodities.
It is beyond doubt that the authorities alone will be responsible for the consequences because they do not want to budge from their rigid stand inspite of repeated pleas from the traders.
Let me make it very clear that it is not our intention to put the consumers to any hardship. On the other hand, we are conscious of our social obligations
If we, as traders, have to survive, we have to meet the consumers needs.
However, we have been left with no other option but to resort to the indefinite bandh if wiser counsel does not prevail by that time.