Amid the raging controversy over the imposition of service tax on Vaishno Devi pilgrims travelling to the cave shrine in the Trikuta Hills by helicopter, the state finance ministry today made it clear that the tax would not be withdrawn as “it (tax) has been levied on all commercial chopper and cable car services operating in J&K”.
The finance ministry has taken the decision despite an assurance given by the BJP — the alliance partner in the Mufti Mohammad Sayeed-led government — that the notification would be rolled back. Jammu has been witnessing a series of protests with various political, non-political and social groups demanding immediate rollback of the tax.
Incidentally, both Deputy Chief Minister Nirmal Singh and Minister of State for Finance Pawan Gupta belong to the BJP. The government has also reportedly taken the decision without consulting the Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine Board (SMVDSB), which manages the pilgrimage and chopper service.
“The service tax proposed to be levied by the state government is applicable to all commercial helicopter services operating in J&K. The service tax is also being charged on ropeways and cable car services, which carry tourists and pilgrims to not only tourist resorts but also to some shrines in the Kashmir valley,” Finance Minister Haseeb Drabu said in a statement issued here this evening.
“There is no question of charging such a tax only on a particular route,” he said, adding that similar tax was being imposed on chopper services ferrying tourists to exotic spots such as Gulmarg and Pahalgam.
“Levying of service tax only adds Rs 130 to the cost of the chopper ticket on any route in Jammu and Kashmir,” he said while expressing dismay over the “reckless and provocative” remarks of some political parties on the issue. He accused them of trying to communalise a simple administrative order applicable throughout the state.
The Finance Ministry decision is seen as an embarrassment for the saffron party, which claims that it had conveyed to the Chief Minister that the decision should be reviewed. “I had a word with Deputy Chief Minister regarding the “Jazia’ tax on pilgrims to the Vaishno Devi shrine. I have asked him to discuss it with the Chief Minister and review the new tax levied on the chopper service to the Vaishno Devi shrine,” BJP general secretary Ram Madhav said in New Delhi.
On September 2, the state finance department issued a notification, directing the SMVDSB to impose 12.5 per cent service tax on the Vaishno Devi pilgrims travelling by helicopter from Katra to Sanji Chhat.
Meanwhile, NC president Farooq Abdullah questioned the government decision: “This is wrong, this should not happen. You have imposed extra 12 per cent (tax) on helicopters, why?”