Today's Paper

Indian farmers paying tax to Bhutan

TAXING TIMES: A farmer in Parkejuli village on the India-Bhutan border shows a tax receipt given by the Royal Bhutan Government.   | Photo Credit: PHOTO: RITU RAJ KONWAR

Sushanta Talukdar

For using water from rivers flowing from the Himalyan kingdom into India

Centre yet to take up the matter with BhutanVillagers resort to 15-day economic blockade seeking exemption

Parkejuli (Indo-Bhutan border): When election comes, 48-year-old Herod Basumatary and thousands of farmers living in villages dotting the India-Bhutan border vote as duty-bound Indian citizens.

But for the past 50 years these farmers have been paying taxes to the Royal Bhutan Government for using water from rivers flowing from the Himalyan kingdom into India to irrigate their paddy fields.

The practice dates back to 1956 when villagers of Horotola and Kalajhar entered into an agreement with the then Ranger of the Forest Department of the Bhutan Government for opening an irrigation channel from the Darranga river.

Regular hike

The villagers were initially required to pay an annual tax of Rs. 100 to the Royal Government. Over the years, Bhutan started hiking it at the rate of 25 per cent every year and the amount stood at Rs. 21,000 in 2005.

An agreement was signed afresh on December 12, 2002 between the Government of Bhutan (represented by the Dzongkhag administration) and Herod Basumatary, president of Horotola-Kalajhar and Khairani Irrigation Channel Committee.

Under it Indian villagers were required to build a concrete channel and maintain it. "We spent Rs. 61000 for repairing the channel this year in addition to paying Rs. 21,000 to the Bhutan Government last year," said Mr. Basumatry. His father Katimal Basumtary was among the 10 signatories of the first agreement.

Besides, the committee has to pay salaries to the tune of Rs. 12,000 annually to the watchman of the sluice gate at the origin of the channel inside Samdrup Jongkhar in Bhutan. The money is raised through contributions from the user families. Each family is also required to send one member as volunteer to take part in silt removal activities.

If someone fails to turn up, a fine of Rs. 50 is levied a day. The water is available only to those farmers who contribute to the fund. Those who cannot pay have to wait for the rains when excess water in the channel spills over to their paddy fields.

Requests unheeded

Requests by the villagers to both Delhi and Dispur to impress upon the Royal Bhutan Government to exempt them from paying the tax went unheeded.

However, the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC), an administrative body under the provisions of the Sixth Schedule, took up the matter with the Bhutan Government.

Positive response

"Though the Royal Government showed a positive response to our request for exempting these poor cultivators from payment of revenue it could not be formalised as the BTC cannot reach an agreement with a foreign country.

The State Government must impress upon the Centre to take up the matter with the Bhutan Government and reach a formal agreement in this regard," said Mr. Biswajit Daimari, the MLA from Tamulpur constituency.

Mr. Daimary is seeking re-election from the constituency for a second term as a candidate of the Bodoland People's Progressive Front (BPPF-Hagmra Mahillary faction).

Agree for talks

Indian villagers resorted to a 15-day economic blockade against Bhutan from January 1 in protest against the hike in water tax.

This forced the Bhutanese authorities to agree to talk to the BTC, said Mr. Emmanuel Mushahary, Executive Member, BTC and the president of the Indo-Bhutan Citizens' Forum formed in November 2004.

"How long will we be required to pay tax to a foreign country? Are we not Indian citizens? We hope the coming election would bring a permanent solution to this problem," Mr. Basumatary said.