Need for positive discrimination favouring handmade products by not taxing them

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The Gram Seva Sangh statement following the decision of noted theatre actor and social activist Prasanna to break his indefinite hunger strike on assurance of Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah that the state would support the satyagraha led by him for a from the Goods and Services Tax (GST) Council for 0% GST on handmade sector to realise a promise made in the Indian Constitution:

With the assurance of Chief Minister of Karnataka Siddaramaiah that the Karnataka Government will support the satyagraha’s demand that 0% GST is introduced on hand made products, Prasanna broke his six day indefinite fast today in the presence of various elders and supporters by accepting tender coconut water from Veerabhadra Chennamalla Swami of Nidumaamidi Mata. The Chief Minister in his 19th October letter to Indian Finance Minister Arun Jaitley has said that “imposition of GST on (handmade) products has had an adverse effect on the livelihood of such artisans engaged in producing such products”.

He also said that the demands of the satyagraha “requires serious and urgent consideration and a positive resolution. This would not only benefit a large segment of our rural population but would also give a boost to rural employment and sustainability. I, therefore, urge you to take this issue on a priority basis in the next GST Council and decide favourably benefiting a large segment of rural artisans. I assure you of the Government of Karnataka’s full support in this regard.”

Noted theatre and social activist Prasanna of Gram Seva Sangh has been on an indefinite fast–since 14th October 2017 demanding “Zero Tax” on handmade products. He took the decision of an indefinite fast as several actions nation-wide as part of the satyagraha demanding “zero tax” were not responded to by the GST Council of India.

The satyagraha has captured the imaginations of millions nation-wide and brought in a new awakening in the consumer. There is a growing collective demand to ensure India’s governance keeps the promises made in the Constitution of India and the Freedom Movement that there is active and willing support to sustain crafts people and such others who depend on their hands and skills in building the nation.

Dr BR Ambedkar spoke extensively about the need for positive discrimination favouring handcrafting artisans and communities who are essentially rural, fisherfolk, pastoral, artisanal, tribal and such other natural resource dependent communities. This was also in acknowledgment of the state’s role in correcting a major historical wrong committed against craftspeople who had been violently suppressed during British regime.

Gandhiji promoted the charkha as the praxis of producing one’s own essentials as the most profound act of sovereign existence, and that without damaging the Earth or causing injustices to others in one’s life. The idea was to build a just economic system that was both ecologically sustainable and ethical. As a part of this movement for fundamental reform, the state was called upon to enable and empower communities who provided us with our daily needs with a wide range of hand made products, and which were produced without damaging the earth.

Positive discrimination favouring handmade products by not taxing them would be the most fundamental support the state can extend to provide these highly marginalised communities with a chance to secure a dignified existence, all with their own labour, craft and skill.

By introducing GST on handmade products, the GST Council of India, which is a negotiated process of all States and the Union Government, has comprehensively ignored the critical importance of such positive discrimination favouring the handicraft sector. Instead, handmade products have been heavily taxed, ranging between 5% and 28% (the highest tax bracket). The result of this will be mass impoverishment of the rural and informal sectors that support millions of livelihoods by making handmade products.

Further, it will result in hand made products having no chance whatsoever of competing with mass-produced consumer goods, which are supported with a whole range of sops: such as easy credit supply, handsome tax breaks, easy and cheap access to natural resources, infrastructure, and also cheap labour.

This discrimination favouring the industrialised class is producing an economy that is highly divisive, where a miniscule percentage are hoarding all profits, while the costs are borne by the rest of us. Besides, the impacts are being passed on to future generations as well. Such an economy is unsustainable.

Prasanna’s satyagraha is a reminder to the state, and the public at large, that we must now stop hurting the handcrafting sector any further. His indefinite fast is a protest against such deliberate negligence and injustice, a movement in civil disobedience against our own elected government that has become insensitive to the very people that placed them in power. This is a call to awaken the humanism in those who are now in power, and in all consumers, to ensure a just and ecologically sustainable society is made possible.

This is also a call to refuse to pay unjust GST when buying handmade products and demand the GST Council introduces ‘zero tax’ on all handmade products in keeping with our Constitutional promise, especially that which is enshrined in Article 39:

(a) that the citizens, men and women equally, have the right to an adequate means to livelihood;
(b) that the ownership and control of the material resources of the community are so distributed as best to subserve the common good;
(c) that the operation of the economic system does not result in the concentration of wealth and means of production to the common detriment;”

Background of the Satyagraha:

The indefinite fast by Prasanna is an outcome of the Sathyagraha that was formally launched by Grama Seva Sangha at Bangalore Town Hall on 7th September 2017. In full public view, hand made products were sold without conforming to the GST regime, practicing civil disobedience against an unjust tax. Noted film maker and theatre director MS Sathyu, veteran freedom fighter and Gandhian HS Doreswamy, journalist Dr Vijayamma, poet Mudnakodu Chinaswamy, singer MD Pallavi, Shashidhar Adapa, film actor Kishore, artist SG Vasudev and hundreds of others participated.

This civil disobedience movement continued from Hyderabad on 9th September, when activists of Gram Seva Sangh, Rashtriya Chenetha Jana Samakya and Dastkar Andhra were arrested. Undeterred by such police action, the movement spread.

In subsequent weeks, the movement spread across various centres of south India. This gained the support from Panditaradhya Swami, Sanehalli Matt at Sirigere (Karnataka). The satyagraha was supported in Tumkur and Sira towns by Yatiraju, Ramakrishnappa, Indiramma, Pandit Javahar, Tundoti Narasimaiah, Freedom Fighter Revanna, SIGNA and CMCA volunteers and other like-minded people in.

On 24th September, a padyatra was taken from Junajappana Gudde (shrine of pastoral God Junjappa) to Arsikere Kasturba Ashram, a distance of 120 km. All along there were several exhaustive meetings with the farmers, artisans, jogappas, traditional medicine practitioners, etc.

At Arsikere, Panditaradhya Swami of Sanehalli Matt, Weavers’ Union President Poornima, Shivalinge Gowda, MLA, and various others joined the struggle which included blocking the Arsikere-Mysore road as an act of civil disobedience. Activists were arrested, an FIR was filed and then they were released. The movement continued its march.

From Mysore, writer Devanuru Mahadeva, and various others joined the satyagraha. From Challakere, Doddaullarthi Karianna of the Amrit Mahal Kaval Hitarakshana Horata Samithi and All India Kisan Sabha endorsed the struggle.
Meanwhile, hundreds of letters and petitions were sent to various Chief Ministers, Union Finance Minister and the GST Council of India. On 9th October, a Gram Seva Sangh letter addressed to Siddaramaiah, Chief Minister of Karnataka, and endorsed by various luminaries, explaining: “Zero tax on Handmade products would enable village producers to establish themselves in the urban market. It would liberate the poor from the debt trap and help them to lead a honourable material life.”

Extending the support to the satyagraha, the Federation of Indian Handloom Organisation president Uzramma wrote to the Chief Minister in which she said: “Arun Jaitely has announced small concessions to handmade products. These concessions are highly inadequate”. She urged the CM to get a resolution passed in the Karnataka Assembly “asking the GST Council to make all handmade products zero-taxed”.

Endorsing the sathyagraha, the Rashtriya Chenetha Jana Samakya stated in a letter to Arun Jaitely that the Sathyagraha is “to protect the fruits of the labor of the rural poor. Their products have been taxed, while the machine products have been made attractive, by the Goods and Services Tax regime, (GST). To put it simply, good things have been made expensive and the bad attractive… By selling the handmade, without either collecting or paying tax, we are protesting. This is a satyagraha. We shall gladly face punishment, but shall resist the unjust law imposing GST on handmade products.”

Renowned social scientist Ashish Nandy has led a panel of interdisciplinary experts from across India, at the request of Gram Seva Sangh, and prepared a detailed report on why 0% GST on hand made products is necessarily a just step. A list of over 200 products that deserve this support has also been provided to the Government and the GST Council. The committee includes noted film maker Shyam Benegal, handicrafts proponent Uzramma, social scientist AR Vasavi, Karnataka’s former DGP Ajay Kumar Singh, and others.

Despite all these efforts, neither the Union Finance Minister nor the GST Council has made any commitment to accept this just demand.

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