Don’t let the performer go even if he is not liable.
There is an old anecdote about an Andher Nagri with a Chaupat Raja. When an eccentric King came to power his Kotwal went berserk. He caught hold of an innocent bystander and asked him to pay a fine. “But what have I done?” He asked. “What do you mean, just because you have done nothing does it mean that I will let you go?” He retorted officiously. If amateur theatre has to be encouraged to survive then all the bureaucratic hurdles have to be done away with. One of the biggest amongst them is the Entertainment Tax Exemption Certificate that the Theatre group has to obtain from the Entertainment Tax Department, even if he is not liable. Strangely, this department falls in the same Commissionerate as that of Liquor Licensing. So, ominous as it sounds, theatre is governed both by the Bombay Police Act and by the Department which deals with Excise and Liquor licensing. Entertainment tax as extended to the Union territory of Delhi falls under section 6(1)(a) of the UP Entertainment and Betting Tax Act 1937. Strange bedfellows these - Police Act, Liquor and Betting! Yet, these are the laws and departments that deal with the sanction awarded to cultural shows.
Is this what one calls poetic justice? It does not need too much commonsense to surmise, that as far as nomenclature goes, there is some thing basically wrong with the way in which laws meant for other purposes have been bent backwards to deal with theatre as well. According to the Delhi Government web site: “The Entertainment Tax Department under the Commissionerate is considered to be an important source of revenue for the Government of Delhi, but it's equally important contribution is towards the promotion of ancient Indian arts, culture, and also sports by granting tax exemption. The department has completely exempted the registered societies pre-eminently devoted to the promotion of arts and theatres etc., and also the Magic Shows and Circus from entertainment tax.” Laudable words those, but, let us examine if the words match the deeds.

Somewhere around the end of the last Millennium a group of theatre practitioners met in a seminar under the aegis of India Habitat Centre to discuss the various problems faced by Amateur Theatre. Among others, it was attended by Kirti Jain, Rajendranath, Jalabala Vaidya, Gopal Sharman, Arvind Gaur and Joy Michael. The then Entertainment Tax Commissioner, Gyanendra Srivastava, was one of those rare officers of the Government machinery who was very receptive and positive about finding solutions to those problems. He responded by writing to the then Police Commissioner Ajai Raj Sharma. He informed him about the seminar held at IHC attended by distinguished people from the art fraternity, where one grievance was repeatedly voiced. The grievance related to NOC by the Entertainment Tax Department, which is insisted upon by the local police and traffic police before permission for staging an entertainment event is granted by the police. Clarifying that NOC is a measure to ensure that due Entertainment Tax had been paid, he went on to add, that there were certain events such as Drama performances including ballets, operas, dances, music, puppetry shows and classical and folk songs by a society registered in Delhi, which are exempted from Entertainment Tax, provided the admission fee is a maximum of 500 rupees.

Unknown to many, this exemption has been in force since 18th August 1998, vide a notification by the Government of Delhi of the same date. The notification lays down that for the exempted performance as enumerated above, only a prior intimation about the show is required to be given to the ET Dep’t. In accordance with the above the Department acknowledges the intimation given by such organizers. However, apparently the local police and traffic officials sometimes insist on the NOC. It is clarified that the NOC is required only in respect of performances that are not covered by the above notification. In performances exempted by the notification, any proof of intimation sufficed. Srivastava further clarified that as a measure of transparency his department had gone on the internet and acknowledgements for exempted performances were issued on the internet also. He added that even the printouts of the same as a computer generated letter without signature would also be acceptable.

In the Department’s Web site it is claimed that “Entertainment tax exemptions are granted liberally to plays, ballets, etc.. In spite of granting liberal exemptions, the revenue collection by the department has been increasing every year”. Well, a part of that statement is true. Indeed, since 1994-95 the annual revenue of the ET department has gone up from 30 to 50 crores, but, at the same time, the number of shows which were exempted from entertainment tax has gone down from 96 to 35. So obviously, even as per the Departments own statistics, the tax exemptions are not liberal, they have in fact come down to one third!

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