14 June 2013

Sriram Narayanan on: taxes on Indian SUVs

Sriram wonders if our finance minister walks around with a measuring tape. Writes him a letter to check

Sriram Narayanan
Car image

Dear Mr Palaniappan Chidambaram,

It’s not that I never engage in pointless activity. But embarking on this letter tops the list. Apart from approaching the law for help, of course. Obviously, you do not read auto magazines. So chances are, you will never read this. Now, TopGear isn’t the Bible when it comes to cars. Yet, if you did read us, you’d get some idea on small cars, big cars, SUVs, and the whole lot of things that befuddle you and your people who sit down to chalk out the Budget.

I am no economist. I don’t understand what makes a dollar equivalent to Rs 52 in the morning and Rs 52.32 in the evening. I will not tell you about the impact, or the lack of it, on the revenue earned in taxing vehicles longer than four metres or set 170mm off the ground. Because by now, you’d have got a lot of flak for taxing a segment that doesn’t account for a majority of auto sales. Or you’d have got a lot of slack from your masters for affording them some more cash to play with.

In letter, your plan is open to debate. My problem is that, in spirit, your plan is as immoral as ensuring air pollution remains high and then taxing people who purchase gas masks. Flummoxed? Want to throw the mag in a bin? Oh, are you reading now? Frankly, the last person people expect to be clued into reality is an Indian politician or bureaucrat. Even with such low standards, you have definitely outdone your tribe.

You see Mr Finance Minister, cars under four metres long can accommodate only four to five people in comfort. Unless you are okay with people on the roof and children in the boot, there are no laws or financial ‘schemes’ you can bring in that will change that. But there happen to be cars above four metres that can carry an additional two to three people. The same two to three people who’d otherwise need another four-metre car if they were to get anywhere. Yes. The word you are looking for is irony.

Which brings me to those three letters that’s got the entire world up in arms – SUV. In developed countries, SUVs are used by moms to drop kids to school and by dads to get to the golf course. In India – which should abandon the tag of developing and stick to regressing  – an SUV is used simply to keep the underside of the car safe. If you, Mr Chidrambaram, happen to take roads outside the Diplomatic Enclave or Rajpath, you will realise you need a huge leap of faith to call the surfaces that Indian vehicles use, ‘roads’.

An SUV is also cover for unmarked dividers, speed humps that qualify as small hillocks and construction rubble carelessly left around. Yes, Mr Chidambaram, don’t scratch your head. These things exist. On what we call roads. This is precisely why the suspension on even small cars and sedans is raised to the maximum possible as preparation for an India launch. But since you suffer from such an unhealthy obsession with the measuring tape, the joke will entirely be on you when car companies raise the suspension by only 169mm, reducing this entire process of nation building into a cat-and-mouse game.

But then, nobody expected anything better. After all, yours is the government that has made digital set-top boxes compulsory in major cities. In a country where even major metros suffer from power cuts and restricted water supply, set-top boxes are exactly what taxpayers needed. And true to your nature, after making them compulsory, you’ve promptly increased duties on the boxes, which are all imported from South East Asia.

Either you are severely challenged intellectually, or you are one hell of a genius. My sincere apologies if you find my language unparliamentary. But that’s the only way to get through parliamentarians these days.

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We make a trip to the north-eastern end of the country to meet a real Jeep, in one that keeps it real from the current crop