Saturday, July 20, 2013

O Meu Portugal (and a Little Horseplay)

There are some things I must do when I visit Kolkata in the summer. Most of them are food-related, as you may have noticed in a couple of earlier postings. There are other little pilgrimages that are usually made, such as a trip to Presidency College (now known rather more grandly as Presidency University) or a visit to Coffee House. Or to the OlyPub. I could, of course, write about each of these, and one day I probably will. 

But there are also onerous tasks. I am currently engaged in one such activity, which is the filling-out of my mother's income tax return.

My mother's return is filed on form ITR-2, available here just in case you are planning on filing a return to the Indian government and are one of those "Individuals and HUFs not having Income from Business or Profession". What's that? What's an HUF, you ask? You are not told, because India is the land of acronymic ecstasy, and acronyms lose their ecstatic charge if expanded. (The RBI is actually quite helpful; it publishes its commonly used acronyms. Here is a more comprehensive Indian list.)

Anyway, as my mother is part of a HUF, I settled down with the drudgery of the 2013 version of ITR-2, to be greeted by this interesting query:
Hmm, interesting. I turned to ITR-2 for 2012. No sign of the Portuguese civil code last year:

Well, well, well. As many of my readers will know, India is directed by its Constitution to move towards a Uniform Civil Code. But it's been 65 years and we don't have one, and some very contentious things have happened around the fact that (for instance) Hindus and Muslims can be married under different Laws. But the Goa Civil Code, based on the Portuguese Civil Code of 1867, is different, in that it takes no notice of religion, and it in matters of property and asset ownership, it is absolutely equal in terms of gender. For instance, under the Law of Community Property which kicks in as a default under the Goa Civil Code in case no express marital contract has been made, "each spouse automatically acquires joint ownership of all assets already in their possession as well as those due to them by inheritance" (see this article by Margaret Mascarenhas for more details).

Nice. Why it made the 2013 form I don't know. (Maybe someone sued.) Is it a retrograde step? Literally viewed, maybe: after all, we've been enjoined to move towards a Uniform Civil Code, not away from it. But I like it. Any resident of Goa can use it. (And Goa is wonderful.) And India's chimerical uniform civil code would do well to universally adopt this default. That little question places one of India's most important civil codes explicitly on the map.

That isn't all I have to say about ITR-2. Like water from a stone, one can wring little trickles of amusement from this rather forbidding object. If one plods on to Section 4, Income from other sources, one will be amply rewarded by a rather odd partition of the income space: 

Take a look at item (c). Somehow, the activity of "owning and maintaining racehorses" gets separate mention in a principal income tax form of the Government of India! It is as if roulette wheels were explicitly flagged as an income category, or making peanut butter, or winnings from crossword puzzles (wait a minute, winnings from crossword puzzles are flagged; see item b!)

I will leave you there, but I cannot bear to do so without a glimpse into just why horses occupy a separate income category in the august eyes of the Indian Tax Code. One will need to open up Section 74A of the Income Tax Act of the Government of India, 1995, to be greeted with this mysterious lack of fungibility in loss-deductions:

"In the case of an assessee being the owner of horses maintained by him for running in horse races (such horses being hereafter in this sub-section referred to as race horses), the amount of loss incurred by the assessee in the activity of owning and maintaining race horses in any assessment year shall not be set off against income, if any, from any source other than the activity of owning and maintaining race horses..."

If you think this is the product of some mad bureaucrat who fell off a pony in Darjeeling as a child and is now wreaking his revenge, you're probably right. But this weapon has been deployed, causing a fair amount of havoc; see, for instance, the matter of the State versus M.A. Chidambaram, 1985.

Epic stuff. It brings to mind the eternal gem of Naomi Royde-Smith:

I know two things about the horse 
And one of them is rather coarse.

Clearly, I have now the very knowledge that Naomi so delicately sought to avoid. After all, if there are just four categories in "Income from other sources," each of them must be "rather coarse".