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Nepali Times, 30 SEPTEMBER - 6 OCTOBER 2005 #267

www.nepalitimes.com

 

Balancing The Books : Booksellers and students are worst affected by the controversial new tariff on books

Mallika Aryal

The usual bustle at Mandala Book Point, Jamal, has been absent for the last couple of months but this is the fourth time Yogendra Gurung, lecturer of Population Studies at Tribubhan University, has come for books crucial to his research. “I have to work with the most recent information on statistics related to ethnicity, migration and conflict but I have not been able to get hold of the books,” he says.

The recent budget imposed a 6.5 percent customs duty on all imported books. According to the government, the aim was to encourage Nepal’s printing industry. But the only clear impact to date has been booksellers’ refusal to sell books that  include the customs tax. The result: volumes worth Rs 20 million have been gathering dust at customs on the Nepal-India border since 16 July.

“We are suffering huge losses,” says Madhab Lal Maharjan, general secretary of the National Booksellers and Publishers  Association of Nepal (NBPAN). Most affected are students of higher education since an estimated two-thirds of their textbooks, including medical, management and computer science books, come from abroad. “Students usually ask us for discounts on books but with the new duty imposed they will never be able to afford the books,” says Kiran Gurung of National Book Centre, Bhotahiti.

“We have said no to so many customers in the past few days that the number of people coming in to ask for textbooks has decreased considerably,” he added.

Ministry of Education and Sports Joint Secretary Laba Prasad Tripathi says, “Concerned authorities need to understand that in a country where less than one percent of the total population can read, taxing books would have negative effects.” He added, “That does not mean we are not doing anything about it now.

The process has been initiated and we are waiting for response from ministries.” Officials in the revenue division at the Ministry of Finance told us they are aware of the widespread dissatisfaction at the decision and are working to respond to it. But they refused to provide further details.

Maharjan of NBPAN says, “The government is investing billions in education to fulfil the Millennium Development Goals and to achieve education for all. The recent decision to tax books only takes them further away from their purpose.”

In a new initiative, the government’s Janak Education Materials Centre has started publishing grammar books for secondary schools in collaboration with India’s Oxford University Press. Prior to the budget announcement these books would have faced a 10 percent custom tax, which was levied on all Nepali books published outside the country and imported in bulk. “

If the government is so concerned about promoting national printing industries,” Maharjan asks, “why not encourage institutions, NGOs, government and semigovernment entities to print in Nepal? Moreover, why not provide the technology and feasible environment to print foreign books here?”

NBPAN argues the new levy on books violates the spirit of the UNESCO constitution, Charter of Books and an international treaty called the Florence Agreement, which all recommend against such taxes.

Nepal hasn’t signed UNESCO’s constitution or the Florence Agreement but as a member state of the body, the government should respect the objectives of its constitution, reasons NBPAN.

Member of the government’s Revenue Consultative Committee, Bishwambher Pyakurel, says it’s not too late to reverse the tax. “The policymakers have to understand that taking the provision back will not bring the government’s credibility down. That said, as a member of the recommending body I can assure you that we have been talking to all concerned and the reaction has been quite positive.”

Maharjan also says policymakers have been sympathetic but, “That is not enough. It has been more than two months since the decision. We want to see action and we want to see some changes in policy.”

“No country in the world taxes books. With this recent decision one wonders if the government is in so much trouble that it is collecting revenues by taxing knowledge,” he added.

Back at Jamal’s Mandala Book Point, Yogendra Gurung will return home empty-handed again. “The university library does not have the budget to buy the books. That is why we buy

our personal copies, no matter how expensive they may be. Now we can’t even do that. What more can I do than wait until the government decides to take the book tariff off?”

 

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