By Jaideep Sarin
Chandigarh, July 18 (IANS) Questioning the logic of the central government and the GST Council imposing a tax on religious and social service done for common people, the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), which manages Sikh shrines in Punjab and runs a “langar” (free community kitchen) for hundreds of thousands of people on a daily basis, has made its displeasure known.
SGPC president Kirpal Singh Badungar says that he is aghast at the “additional tax burden of nearly Rs 10 crore” (Rs 100 million) on the SGPC for running its free and voluntary “sewa” (community service).
“There is SGPC doing social and religious service for the betterment of the people. The (Narendra) Modi government and (Union Finance Minister) Arun Jaitley have imposed this unwarranted tax burden on us. Jaitley is misleading the people by saying that there is no GST on ‘kara-prasad’ (sacrament). All ingredients like ghee, flour, sugar and other things that go into making the prasad have been taxed heavily,” Badungar pointed out.
Having written letters to the Finance Minister, the GST Council and now even to the Punjab government, the SGPC is seeking exemption for itself from the Goods and Services Tax (GST), saying that it is carrying out the sewa for the overall welfare of people — irrespective of religion, caste, colour, gender or creed.
“This is like taxing the religious sentiments of people. This means that the government wants to impose tax on the sewa that SGPC does. Can we compromise on the quality of our service? It is done 24×7. We cannot stop doing this,” a clearly upset Badungar said.
He pointed out that the SGPC runs langars for hundreds of thousands of people, gives kara prasad, maintains ‘sarais’ (shelters for people to stay) and other gurdwara buildings, helps poor and needy children as well as students, and performs a host of other social activities.
“The SGPC will have to pay Rs 10 crore annually as tax under the GST. We want Jaitley and the Modi government to review its decision. We have written to the government again on this. We will hold a meeting of the SGPC on this issue,” said Badungar, who oversees its Rs 1,100-crore annual budget.
The SGPC runs the world’s largest community kitchen — feeding an average 50,000 devotees on week days and over 100,000 on weekends and festivals with freshly cooked food at the Harmandir Sahib, popularly known as the Golden Temple, in Amritsar.
The GST does not give any exemptions to religious bodies for purchases, while the SGPC was previously exempt from VAT and other taxes that have been subsumed into the GST.
Ghee, sugar and pulses have been put in the 12, 18 and five per cent GST slabs. Even the gas used for cooking is now taxed.
Besides the Golden Temple, the SGPC runs the langar service in other famous Sikh shrines like Takht Keshgarh Sahib in Anandpur Sahib (where the modern day Khalsa Panth was established on April 13, 1699, by Guru Gobind Singh), Takht Damdama Sahib at Talwandi Sabo in Bathinda district and scores of other gurdwaras under it.
The langar sewa is a socio-religious activity that is part of the Sikh religious ethos from the time of the first Sikh Guru, Nanak Dev (1469-1539). The langar was started to emphasise equality in society regardless of religion, caste, colour or creed.
Union Food Processing Minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal had recently written to Jaitely to exempt from GST all purchases made by the SGPC for langar sewa.
Hundreds of people volunteer on a daily basis at the Golden Temple complex and other gurdwaras to prepare and serve food and wash used utensils at the langars. The volunteers include scores of women and children as well. People partake langar while sitting on the floor in the langar halls of the gurdwaras.
The completely vegetarian langar service is funded from donations made by people at gurdwaras.
(Jaideep Sarin can be contacted at email@example.com)