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The brown list of Venkitaramanan

Such a facility has also been utilised by powerful corporates and wealthy educational institutions exploiting the loopholes in the legal system and delaying decisions as long as possible. Of course, these could afford the services of legal luminaries at exorbitant fees.

I remember such luminaries helped large corporates like ITC to defer tax liability over long periods in the 1980s. One of the issues was the excise duty levied on goods produced. ITC and large vehicle manufacturers like Tata Motors used to transfer stocks to warehouses in different states paying excise duty on factory gate manufacturing costs that were kept low. The costs were marked up from the warehouses to distributors and dealers ends causing sizeable losses in excise revenue. These added up to around Rs 800 crore plus for ITC alone. Large number of other manufacturers of goods followed this practice by resorting to litigation. Legal luminaries like N A Palkivala provided needed relief to the corporates. The plea of the tax collectors had no effect and the economy went downhill reaching the nadir in 1991. 

The brilliant civil servant S Venkitaramanan thought of dealing with these in an unconventional way. As finance secretary, he sat over the files of the Tatas who had to get the government’s clearance for importing a mothballed steel plant from Europe. This had to be done within a deadline and the file wouldn’t move. Venkitaramanan succeeded in persuading the company to cough up a portion of the disputed bulging tax claims! When he was asked at the Economic Editors’ Conference whether it was a sort of a black listing of such firms, in his characteristic humour he responded: “you can call it the brown list.” 

Like what Jerome K Jerome said, the method may be crude but it was effective.



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