It is just as well that the Government now claims it has an open mind on the format of the new tax return for salaried individuals. But the change of heart does nothing to alter the basic mindset. The attitude of the country's income tax department in dealing with this class of tax payers is reminiscent of the spirit in which the United States approached negotiations with the former Soviet Union over limiting strategic arms stockpiles, prompting President Ronald Reagan to describe it as "Trust but Verify." It would be more equitable and appropriate for the income tax department to operate on a principle of trust towards salaried individuals who possess little means of concealing any portion of their incomes from taxation. Given their vast numbers, it is also the politically correct thing to do. But amid a perception of rampant tax evasion by those with independent business or professional incomes, and given the income tax department's mandate to raise more resources for the common good, the officers have been unwilling to leave things entirely to a sense of propriety among the salariat. The result is an administrative regime that pays the customary obeisance to easing their burden of compliance through politically correct exercises at branding calling a form `Saral' or easy doesn't make the exercise that but has otherwise little faith in it as a guiding principle of assessment of incomes.

Within the narrow context of the principle that no income should escape assessment, the logic of what the income tax department is trying to do is clear. It seeks to reconcile the cash inflows of an individual from salaries, gifts, liquidation of past surpluses, and so on with outflows towards personal consumption and fresh investments. Any mismatch between the two sums will prima facie indicate that some receipt has slipped out of the tax net. But the question that needs to be asked is whether the balance of convenience lies in subjecting the vast majority of honest tax paying individuals to the onerous task of compiling cash flow statements for the sake of trapping the few who might be concealing incomes from taxation. Management by exception, focusing on the problem areas, is a cardinal tenet of management science. The general tax-paying public will be justified in demanding that the Government come up with better means of catching those who conceal incomes than subjecting everyone to elaborate record-keeping. What is clear is that the process should not become the punishment. The irony is that the Government is already putting together a system that uses unique tax identification numbers to track transactions of high value and links them to tax payers. Automation of the system of gathering tax intelligence and networking income tax offices responsible for assessing these entities can pay far greater dividends than any number of initiatives that are easy (`Saral') in name but irksome and wasteful in practice.