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For Delhi-based businessman Rajeev Sharma, it's been a long and an expensive wait for his Permanent Account Number (pan). He applied for it two years ago but is yet to be allotted one. All his inquiries at the Income-Tax department have yielded nothing. In the meantime, his export-import business has suffered dearly, for, under the new rules, no export-import licence is issued without producing that magical ten-digit number. Confused, and disappointed, Sharma joins a long list of businessmen who now have to resort to underhand dealings to get their work done.
The truth then is that a large number of people all over India are on an endless wait for their pan cards. The permanent account number exercise was started by the finance ministry about five years ago when the government took upon itself the mammoth task of allotting a unique 10-digit number to every Indian that would make available all the personal information of a taxpayer anywhere in the country. Intended to make this the citizens' identification number, the government also made it mandatory for all crucial transactions like buying property or for travelling abroad.
However, even though the I-T department claims that the exercise is moving at a high speed, the project is far from complete and taxpayers continue to cry foul. Inquiries at the department's offices are invariably met with standard answers that the numbers have either been allotted or are in the process. Still others are politely told that their applications had flaws and that they should go through the entire process all over again.
The truth, however, is quite different. Sources in the department reveal that a large number of pan applications forms have been lost and the officials concerned have no clue about their whereabouts. Worse, there is no record of these forms either. Sources put the number of such applications at anything between 80,000 and 1.5 lakh in Delhi alone. Under the circumstances, the number is available for a price in many cities and hassled traders only oblige willingly.
But getting a number for yourself may not really be the end of the problem. There have been cases where the number on the letter does not tally with that on the card and many have received someone else's card. Outlook has evidence that a number of applicants have been issued two pans despite department officials, including chief Income-Tax commissioner M.M. Joshi asserting that "the software is built such that no one can get two pan numbers."
Income-Tax officials, of course, have their explanations ready. Says Joshi: "In an advanced country like Canada, it took 15 years to put the computerised tax information system in place. In comparison, we have done much better in much less time." They say that earlier the process was cumbersome as applications from the entire country were being sent to the department's national computer centre in New Delhi where the data was matched, verified and the pan issued. In the last two years, things have moved faster as the process has become on-line and numbers are now being given by assessing offices at various centres. But why the delay now? The answer is shocking but not surprising. A lot of pan intimations and cards were allegedly lost in transit because they were sent by ordinary post. "The government did not allow us to send the cards and letters through registered post because it amounted to a large expenditure for a free service," says a top official at the department.
The official version is that things will improve soon. Says P.K. Misra, the I-T commissioner in charge of the pan exercise: "We have an action plan and have set ourselves a deadline to clear the backlog by March 31, 2001." For this, the department is setting up helplines in different cities to clear pan-related queries. The one in Delhi (6176501/6176494) has already started functioning. A voice-operated enquiry system and an interactive query and application system on the Internet is in the pipeline.
The objective may be noble but its implementation has left much to be desired. But if the I-T department is more than content with just over a crore pans in a country of one billion people, there's nothing much you can complain about.