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Private bus Operators file writ to continue tax exemption granted during COVID period: Kerala High Court

The High Court of Kerala, through the learned judge, Justice Bechu Kurian Thomas, in the case Vakiyath Koya vs State of Kerala & Ors. (W.P. (C) NO. 2881 OF 2022) dismissed a writ petition filed by private bus operators to continue tax exemption granted during Covid-19 period

BRIEF FACTS OF THE CASE: In this case, various writ petitions filed by owners of stage carriages and contract carriages, claiming the benefit of exemption from payment of tax for the period affected by the restrictions and regulations imposed due to the Covid-19 pandemic were considered together for hearing before the High Court. The petitioners cited the perils of the pandemic and a report submitted by the Fare Revision Committee of Justice Ramachandran Commission to claim the benefit of tax exemption. Respondent claimed that ‘use of a vehicle’ is not the only criteria for imposing a tax on motor vehicles and that the incidence of tax under the Act falls even on a vehicle that is ‘kept ready for use’ and in case the owner of the vehicle does not intend to use the same, he is at liberty to file a G-Form with the concerned authority and seek exemption from payment of tax. The petitioners argued that the State Government had set apart about 1000 crores to meet the loss of Kerala State Road Transport Corporation but remained aloof to the distress faced by the private stage carriage operators since no such benefits were conferred upon them. The issue before the Court was whether it was rightful to  issue a writ of mandamus directing the Government to grant exemption to the petitioners from payment of taxes.

FINDINGS OF THE COURT: The court, citing Section 3 of The Kerala Motor Vehicles Taxation Act, 1976, held that even if a vehicle is not actually used on the roads, the tax liability will be incurred the moment it is kept ready for use on roads. For carriages and contract carriages, the tax payments are in quarterly instalments. Section 5 provides for the exemption of tax liability. It states that if the previous intimation is given about the non-use of the vehicle for a minimum of one month in a quarter, it shall be deemed that the vehicle is not used or kept ready for use in the State. However, none of the petitioners claimed benefit under this Section. Section 22 of the Act provides for “Exemption from or reduction of tax” by the Government. In exercise of the powers under this section, the Government had granted the benefit of exemption for different periods during the pandemic. The Court held that since exemption from payment of tax was granted for reasonable periods, it cannot be said that despite the restrictions and regulations brought in due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Government had not considered the plight of the stage carriage operators and contract carriage operators. The Court relied on the decision in the State of Bihar and Others v. Amrendra Kumar Mishra [(2006) 12 SCC 561], that a writ of mandamus cannot be issued on  the basis of mere sympathy. The court further held that doctrine of legitimate expectation is not applicable to the case, by placing reliance on X v. Registrar General, High Court of Madhya Pradesh and Another [MANU/SC/0171/2022], wherein it was held that when question regarding applicability of the doctrine of legitimate expectation arises, it is to be determined not according to the claimant’s perception, but, in the larger public interest. The court also remarked that the grant of exemption of taxes is a matter of policy. The private bus operators have so far derived the benefits of extended absolute exemption from payment of tax for a period of twelve months and the partial exemption for three months from 2020. In light of the above observations, the court dismissed the writ petitions. 

JUDGEMENT REVIEWED BY – AMRUTHA K

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