Pardeep Singh Bali
Even after passage of 9 months, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) seems to be sleeping over the issue of hike of 12.5 percent service tax on the pilgrims of holy cave shrine of Mata Vaishno Devi, traveling by air, from Katra to Sanji Chat and back, which was imposed last year in September.
BJP at that time had accused its ruling coalition partner PDP of not consulting the party while hiking the service tax on the helicopter service. They had claimed that the Shrine Board was in the process of urging the Government to revert the decision.
In September last year, the state government took two major decisions, including beef ban and hike in tax on chopper service to Mata Vaishno Devi, both the decisions were criticized by the people in Jammu as well as Kashmir. There were protests and clashes over both the issues. Kashmir centric PDP managed to put halt on the issue of beef ban, by orders status quo, but Jammu remained deprived of justice, despite promises from the BJP high command that the order will be revoked soon.
At that time, Finance Minister-Haseeb Drabu has issued an order imposing 12.5 per cent Services Tax on pilgrims of Mata Vaishno Devi ji shrine, traveling by the helicopter from Katra to Sanji Chat and back, prompting two helicopter companies Global Vectra and Himalayan Heli, the two air service providers for the pilgrims, to raise prices of the tickets with immediate effect.
The decision had exposed chinks in the ruling coalition with alliance partner, the BJP, claiming that it was not taken into confidence before the imposition of service tax on pilgrims. Service tax was imposed around six months ago after the state allowed the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) to collect toll from highway users, including Vaishno Devi pilgrims, at Ban toll plaza.
Official sources told Newspoint that the move had a cascading effect on the economy of the region as it will reduce the number of pilgrims visiting the shrine. “The number of Vaishno Devi pilgrims has come down drastically over the past three years. In 2012, more than 10 million pilgrims paid obeisance at the shrine. The number came down to 9.3 millions in 2013 and 7.8 millions in 2014. This is affecting the overall economy of the region,” sources said.
With the imposition of service tax, the pilgrims shell out Rs 1,170, instead of Rs 1,039, for the one-way journey, while it will cost Rs 2,340 in place of Rs 2,078 for the two-way journey. Meanwhile, BJP MLA wishing anonymity said that at the time when the Chief Minister-Mehbooba Mufti is pushing hard to develop tourism sector of the Jammu region, such hike is not good, as Jammu region mostly derives tourism revenue from pilgrimage tourism.
Pertinently, the helicopter services to the cave shrine of Mata Vaishno Devi ji were started by the Shrine Board about 14 years back and since then no Government had ever imposed Services Tax on the tickets despite the fact that all major parties including NC, PDP and Congress remained at the helm of affairs, but the BJP, a self proclaimed nationalist party, claiming to be redeemers of Jammu have introduced a new kind of `jazia’ in the form of Services Tax. Meanwhile, no BJP leader was available to comment on the issue despite repeated calls.