‘A Tax Man’ may well be his core avatar, but it’s a title that Dr.Sibichen Mathew is not particularly fond of. And for good reason. Because it does little justice to his versatility. The ‘short’ CV of this 1992 batch Indian Revenue Service (IRS) Officer runs into three full pages and if you miss his present designation – Commissioner of Income Tax, at the top, you may wonder if it’s a Vice Chancellor’s credentials! Consider these academic distinctions: A Masters in Sociology from Loyola College, University of Kerala, Post Graduation in Management and Public Policy from I.I.M Bangalore, M Phil in Sociology from Jawaharlal Nehru University, a doctorate in Fiscal Sociology and Public Finance from Bharathiar University, Coimbatore, LLB from the Karnataka State Law University, Gold Medals galore and University top ranks.
We are not done yet! Courses in International Public Policy, from Syracuse University, USA, Corporate Taxation and Advocacy Skills from Duke University, USA, specialised training in Cyber Crimes, Money Laundering and Capital Markets from various institutes in India, Research Fellowships from the UGC, the Common wealth Fellowship through the Govt of India and nominations for ICSSR and ISEC Fellowships. More to go! 7 research publications, papers presented at national and international seminars, the tag of a Certified Fraud Examiner, 2 books and a blog. Phew, here’s a candidate who will have trouble choosing from a wide array of post-retirement assignments!
Not surprisingly, at one point, Sibichen wished to be “an arm chair academician” but gradually realised that “it is easy to dissect individuals and groups in cozy libraries, seminar halls and project reports. One needs to be part of the governance to make a difference in society.” That explains his plunge into the Civil Services well aware of the “Weberian notion of the bureaucracy as an iron cage.” The IRS, as opposed to the IAS or IPS, seemed to have a a natural pull as “we are relatively independent of political masters”. Is that so? Sibichen is quick to qualify that. “Especially at the micro level.” Assignments range from “Assessment & Criminal Investigation to Judicial roles, Audits, Administration & Systems Management”, with exposure to all types of businesses, tax laws, economic offences, innovative techniques of investigation and transnational tax practices.” Does that sound like a glowing advertisement for the IRS, a la Indian Army’s ‘Do You Have It In You?’ clarion call?
Coming from “a non-business background” Sibichen’s parents – Mr. Mathew, whom he lost early in his life and Mrs. Thresiamma,a teacher, who is his “oxygen” and most of his relatives had jobs “either in academics or in government”. It took a while to grapple with the nuances of business and its inter-play with tax laws and procedures. “What is apparent may not be real” and the challenge was to ferret out “the truth behind what has been window-dressed.” With two Gold Medals, one from the Director General of the National Police Academy during his Civil Services foundational course and the other from the Director General, National Academy of Direct Taxes, for his performance in extra curricular activity, left his mentors in little doubt of his professional flair. Straight off the block, as an Assistant Commissioner, Sibichen cracked a large money laundering racket “in the guise of NRI gifts involving hundreds of taxpayers, through a very challenging and complex investigation.” While working as the Deputy Director (Investigation), he had the unique record of being “successful in every search case processed.” As the Additional Commissioner of Income Tax, he led investigations and assessments “in many scams including the penny stock scam and illegal mining income frauds involving high profile politicians.” These feats won him recognition by the Central Board of Direct Taxes (CBDT) consecutively for 6 years in a row, which is a “rare honour” but small wonder, given his motto of ‘Promise Less, Deliver More.’
In his four year stint as Advisor, Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) in charge of Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka and Kerala, “it was very heartening to directly interact with the consumers and other stake holders in the telecom sector and get vital policy inputs.” In his current posting as the Commissioner of Income Tax (Appeals), his “aim is to discover truth, render justice and clear the backlog through extra efforts.” Targets set by the department have been “exceeded”, he reveals with a sense of justifiable pride.
Are these targets met by the perceived ‘harassment’ of the common man? Sibichen makes it clear that “the current focus of the department is to detect potential tax evaders through non-intrusive means. It extensively uses data mining, data analytics and digital surveillance to detect tax evasion and understand the tax compliance profile of the assessees.” The high tech ‘snooping’ also admittedly involves “reactive forensic auditing and investigation in collaboration with other domestic and international agencies in gathering primary and direct evidences of crime and also satellite imagery to assess historical claims.”
Post demonetisation, the Income Tax Department launched the Operation Clean Money Mission. “It found that a staggering 78.4% who made huge cash deposits were business persons, of which 53.4% were from the trading sector. It was found in the preliminary analysis that cash deposits made by 18 lakh persons were not in tune with their tax profile. 36% of PAN holders among the cash depositors had not filed their I.T returns. About 6 lakh new cases were detected and it identified 14000 recent acquisition of properties of more than 1 crore, where owners had not filed returns. Since huge data is with the department, work load of the department has increased. Sibichen rubbishes claims on the high cost of tax enforcement arguing that “India’s cost of collection is only 66 paise (0.66%) of every 100 Rupees collected.”
A prolific toastmaster and author, Sibichen has written extensively on the ‘why and how’ of black money in his book ‘Making People Pay: The Economic Sociology of Taxation.’ Released by the Governor of Karnataka in 2010, the book has seen three re-prints. Black money, he says, is “inextricably linked to its application in elections and for bribes.”Why does the real estate transaction template still have a black and white component? “Property transactions continue to be an area where substantial black money is circulated. We can curb tax evasion through undervaluation in a limited manner by estimating capital gains by adopting the guideline value.”
‘When the Boss is Wrong’,his more recent book, received adulatory endorsements from corporate head honchos like Cyrus Mistry, Narayanamurthy and Kiran Mazumdar Shaw. It has become a best-seller, again with three reprints in 12 months, probably “because of the narration of experiences of people who faced bad bosses.” His blog ‘Sibi – Cyber Diary’ is a stress buster, safety valve and and a creative space to share “the way I think, feel and respond.” Having started blogging nine years ago, he has contributed around two hundred articles on society, relationships, lifestyle and inspirational real life stories, some gleaned from his career guidance of poor students and leadership training modules through his brainchild – the IRS Social Responsibility Forum. It’s not just speaking and writing, Sibichen has also directed three short films on social causes.
With such a power packed schedule, one wonders if 24 hours a day are enough! With the skin of his teeth, the top IRS officer makes time for long walks and family dinners with his dematologist wife Dr Vanita Mathew and his son Nirmal Mathew, a budding lawyer and daughter dear Nilima Theresa Mathew, now in Class XII. If the Life & Times of Sibichen Mathew is to be made into a ‘Catch Me If You Can’ sort of film one day, it certainly cannot be short like the CV he emailed me. Because he is more, a lot more, than a tax man.
(Sanjay Pinto is an Advocate practising at the Madras High Court, a Columnist, Author, TV Political Analyst, Public Speaking Mentor & Former Resident Editor – NDTV 24×7)