At Aayakar Bhawan – Chennai’s Income Tax Commissionerate, he’s the boss of Tax Deducted At Source (TDS) which accounts for close to half of the fifty thousand crore collected in the State every year. But the moment his car reaches home, Rajib Hota metamorphoses into a doting dad of his teenaged son Ritwick. Two years ago, I remember getting an anxious text message from this Commissioner of Income Tax (TDS) Tamil Nadu, which was a sort of advance booking for his son for a Public Speaking Course that my wife and I were conducting. Every time we chatted, what struck me was his sparkling wit and sense of humour. That made this 1985 batch Indian Revenue Service (IRS) Officer, an automatic choice for the role of a Chief Guest at the Silver Tongue Academy Convocation at PSBB school, at which he endeared himself to the audience by even clicking selfies with some students. In the run up to the function, I got a request from Hota. “No formalities, please. A soft copy of the invitation, if you’re printing one, will do.” I realised why only when i dropped in at his office later. His table was clean, bereft of the trademark pile of files that adorn the desks of most bureaucrats. “I am all for a paperless office. I hate clutter. I don’t keep unnecessary papers. Nothing remains on my desk for long. I clear them almost as soon as they surface.”
Throughout his twenty nine year career, Hota has had a soft corner for the underdog. “ I empathise with the lone rangers – senior citizens, retired folk, widows, pensioners. I make it a point to even “depute an officer to follow up on legitimate pleas”, obviating the need for them “to keep coming back” to the income tax office for either a refund or some other grievance. “ Big Corporate Houses have a battery of experts at their disposal. The individual tax payer needs some hand holding.” When he was the Commissioner Appeals from 2005 to 2007, his focus was on “expeditious and prompt justice” with a practice of orally pronouncing orders instead of making assessees wait indefinitely for the outcome of their appeals. The following year, as the Commissioner in charge of the entire textile belt – Coimbatore, Tirupur, Pollachi, he reached out to tax payers through “big awareness melas” and special counters for ladies, teachers and other categories of tax payers. A stint in the Investigations Wing and as Additional Director in Hyderabad, this no nonsense, ramrod straight officer unearthed a lot of black money. “Even during a search and seizure, if you are fair and objective, people will realise that the tax administration can be humane and not adversarial.” The distinction of implementing the Income Tax Act in Sikkim is something he cherishes while he was the Under Secretary of the Central Board Of Direct Taxes (CBDT) operating out of North Block. Not many are aware that Hota has a strong legal acumen and background. The firebrand debater from Delhi University’s Campus Law Centre was able to demystify complex concepts like ‘permanent establishment’, ‘business connection’, ‘royalty’ and the like and breeze through many a legal thicket with elan as the Director – International Taxation, thanks to his legal education. His mastery of tax laws landed him in a slew of High Powered Committees to reduce litigation and make the tax system more friendly.
Hota was an all rounder in college. With an academic performance – both while pursuing his honours degree in Political Science and Law, that was consistently commendable, he made a mark in debating and dramatics. His passion for theatre catapulted him to the stage in several plays as part of a theatre group ‘Ruchika’ and he even made it to the big screen as a frontline volunteer for the film ‘Gandhi’. While preparing for the Civil Services, Hota tried his hand at journalism with the Junior Statesman, as a Probationary Officer of Bank Of India and a Management Trainee at Lintas. Why did such a colourful personality gravitate towards babudom? “My father, the legendary Satkadi Hota used to work for the Railways. He is a literary figure in Odisha, author of thirty novels and Founder-Editor of ‘Samay’ Newspaper. And my mother Gita Hota is the Editor & Publisher of an Oriya magazine ‘Amrutayana.’ My parents have always dealt with people and their issues. I wanted to be a participant in the government delivery system. And at that time, there was the charm of the Civil Services.” But don’t some youngsters today prefer the IRS to even the IAS and IFS for the wrong reasons? “Well, when I joined the IRS, I was well aware of the salary and that the remuneration was not on par with the private sector. But the sheer joy of serving people more than makes up for the mega bucks. And yes, the experience of also dealing with the creme de la creme of society and captains of industry.”
Public perception is that the income tax department lets the big fish off the hook but catches small fry. “That’s not correct. We get a sizeable chunk of tax from the big fish.” Why do only less than three per cent pay income tax in India? “I can’t comment on that. It all boils down to the value system. If I earn a taxable income, I must discharge my tax obligation. That must be the thinking.” How much Black Money has been stashed away by Indians? “I can’t answer that. You see, the moment someone doesn’t get a bill while buying something on the ground that he or she can save about twelve per cent tax, the problem of black money originates.” What’s his take on draconian tax provisions like Section 234 E of the Income Tax Act that slap both penal interest and a late payment fee amounting to double jeopardy? “I don’t think any of the tax provisions are draconian. There are Dos and Don’ts. When assessees fall short, there is a problem.” And on retrospective taxation? “The Finance Minister has already clarified that in his budget speech.” Any amount of probing doesn’t elicit a juicy headline. It’s evident that Hota wears a hard hat as a bureaucrat, speaks in a measured tone and would make an excellent spokesperson for his department!
A voracious reader, especially of Autobiographies, Hota loves his evening walks, working out at the gym (the proof of the exercising lies in the firm handshake!) watching plays, listening to Hindi music and trekking. “ In the early nineties, I recall going on a safari with my colleagues from Delhi to Ladakh and getting stranded in Himachal due to a landslide. I am an adventure freak.” Although he is active on facebook and follows the Prime Minister, Finance Minister and intellectuals like Gurumurthy on twitter, Hota prefers face to face interaction, through cultural groups and Rotary meetings. Would he want his kids to write the Civil Services Exam? “One of my sons – Shivasish who studied MBA and works for Colgate Palmolive is preparing to crack the exam.” What about his other interest – Law? My daughter Shruti has completed her Masters in Law and was working with a Law Firm but has taken a break now as she has a baby girl – Ishaanvi.”
After the photo shoot for this column, Hota called me to say that Ritz magazine made him feel like “Shah Rukh Khan”. Guess what, by hanging in there for the common man and being absolutely whistle clean, Rajib Hota, I.R.S is a star himself. Agree?
(Sanjay Pinto is a Lawyer, Columnist, Author & Former Resident Editor – NDTV 24×7)