Around 490 income tax officials in Gujarat have are under “tremendous physical and mental stress” on account of excess workload triggered by new systems amid unfilled vacancies, lack of promotions and glitches in the tax portal.
Matters have come to such a pass that the Income Tax Gazetted Officers Association (ITGOA), Gujarat has written to its New Delhi counterpart about “serious difficulties being faced by the Faceless Assessment Officers (FAOs) and Jurisdictional Assessing Officers (JAOs) for completing time barring proceedings”.
The Gujarat ITGOA requested New Delhi ITGOA to take up the issue before the Central Board of Direct Taxes (CBDT) without any further loss of time since the “officers working under FAOs and JAOs are undergoing tremendous physical and mental stress on account of the humungous workload”.
There are 140 vacancies in the income tax department in Gujarat, insider sources said, and that is what is compounding the workload of the officers.
Faceless system, visible problems
There have been no promotions in the assistant commissioner of income tax (ACIT) cadre during the last three years and income tax officer (ITO) cadre for the last three years in the Gujarat region, department sources said.
This has forced many officers to hold additional charges.
Many assistant commissioners hold two charges. Similarly, some range heads are holding additional charges (sometimes in different buildings/ stations), sparking coordination problems amongst officers.
I-T officials rued that they have no say in the decision-making.
“Be it the income tax portal or the faceless assessment system, when introducing anything in the I-T department the government never involves the people who actually have to get the job done,” said a Gujarat-based I-T official.
The government has billed the ‘faceless assessment system’ as a leap towards transparent tax administration. The system aims to eliminate the physical interface between the taxpayer and tax officers. It lays down the procedure to carry out faceless assessment through electronic mode.
“The faceless assessment scheme is a brilliant idea but did the authorities check if we have the required staff to do the job? No!” the Gujarat I-T official said.
“Currently, most officials hold additional charges due to shortage of staff and lack of promotions. The issue faced is not by a handful of officials but 490 of us,” the official added.
No promotions in last three years
Many vacancies exist in the ACIT and ITO cadres because of no promotions for the last three years in the Gujarat region.
“The matter is in the legal domain since 2018 but none have adhered to our concerns,” said another I-T official. “We had filed a petition against it in Gujarat High Court. We are waiting for its second hearing on October 28.”
The JAOs, department sources said, are already saddled with tasks such as issuing notices under Section 148, replying to objections, grievance redress, handling audit objections, uploading the huge volume of documents belonging to the merged jurisdiction and preparing numerous daily reports.
They also have other duties such as PAN de-duplication, answering RTI queries, etc.
Over the last few days a good number of re-opened Section 148 assessment cases and many penalty cases have been pushed to the JAOs from Authorities of National Faceless Appeal Centre (NFAC) and Authorities of Regional Faceless Assessment Centres (ReFAC).
“In most of the cases, the assessees are either not traceable or located at far off places and we are at our wits’ end as to how to serve the required notices, let alone complete the assessment,” an official said.
Portal glitches defenestrate plans
The workload in central charges has further been accentuated due to the glitches in the new e-filing portal, officials said.
The assessing officers (AOs) are not able to access the returns filed by the assessees in response to the notices under Section l 53A/C of the IT Act, 1961. As a result, they are forced to issue manual notice under Section 143(2), in contravention to the established procedure.
As per the SOP dated September 6, 2021, the JAOs are now allotted assessment as well as penalty cases to be completed simultaneously.
“They are expected to perform many tasks, some of which are virtually impossible,” an official said.
What officials say
Here are a few issues the official appeal of ITGOA Gujarat raises:
Tracing out the assessees, whom the designated VUs could not find out in the last few months or during the entire scrutiny proceeding in the pre-faceless era (in case of penalties).
Getting the assessees registered in the new e-filing portal, when millions of already registered users are still unsure as to when they can access it.
Providing hearing facility through video conferencing on the request of the assessees and recording the same. It may be mentioned in this context that none of our office premises have a designated area for this purpose along with video recording facilities.
“We are at a loss as to how the requisite infrastructure can be installed within such a short time,” the appeal said.
“The SOP itself has cast a doubt on its feasibility and suggested the alternative of allowing physical hearing in the presence of the Range Head and making the proceeding akin to the faceless hearing. It is an irony when those cases could not be completed under Faceless Assessment Scheme during the last two years due to technical inadequacies; the onus has now been shifted to JAOs to do the same job within such a short time with far fewer resources.”
The CBDT has only recently withdrawn the bar on communications with the assessee, which was in force till the end of July 2021. Thus, almost all the preliminary work required before finalising an assessment order is still in its nascent stage.
The fresh reallocation of cases has neither brought any relief for the FAOs as their own share of agonies exist and are compounding with each passing day. Time lost due to the second wave of the pandemic could not be compensated. especially when regular attendance and restrictions on movement still continue.
Accessing the Income Tax Business Application-Permanent Account Number through VPN as an alternative remains only on paper for all practical purposes. The extremely slow speed of the intranet while accessing Departmental portals through VPN, especially Insight portal has become a major cause of problems for the FAOs.
Of late, various officers have reported a unique phenomenon wherein the replies of the assessees are uploaded in the system ante-dated. In some penalty cases, the assessees are sending their replies after final approval by the Range Heads confirming that they have gone for appeal. Though the date of uploading is later, the letter of the assessee is marked at an earlier date and the same is being included in the Worklist.
As per the System, in these cases, there is no provision to take the disposal of the appeal. Again, it is learned that even after the approval of the assessment orders by the Review under it, the assessee is being allowed the further opportunity of being heard through VC.