When we think about automation, we are moved by visions of Amazon’s drones flying in the skies to make home deliveries, or driverless cars that will drive us to work and then return home by themselves to take the children to school. In either case, we lament that the jobs of the hapless courier or the ubiquitous driver will become obsolete.
But automation does not always have to be so sexy to be impactful. Everyday use of computers and technology is quietly changing the way we live and in ways that are unimaginable.
Consider the annual chore that most of us hate — filing tax returns. Just a decade ago, this meant stopping by the income-tax office and paying a tout a few rupees to pick up the right set of forms — generally in duplicate, just in case we messed up the first set. Once home, a pen and calculator in hand, we would then pore through bank and salary slips to fill out all the boxes. If we got stumped by a question, we would call a more knowledgeable relative or friend for help; it didn’t matter if the advice was correct. Putting our pen down after signing the form was almost always a sign of jubilation; the signature meant that we attested to everything we said on the form.
Finally, we would walk to the post-office and read it all a second time as we waited to send the mail registered post, acknowledgement due. While in line, we would constantly shake our heads wondering why our visit always coincided with the break times of postal clerks.
Over on the government’s side, the annual tax season would start by making sure that enough forms were ordered from the printers. And as filled-out forms came in, hordes of clerks would be unleashed to key everything into the department’s computer systems which would often be too slow to respond or break down entirely in the event of a power shortage. A separate army of clerks would take the paper forms and file them away in files that no one ever saw again. These would be boxed and carted out to some place for safekeeping.
A click away
Today, this process is so automated that the only human interaction in the process may well be just yours. True, there are programmers who make code changes and maintain the systems, but the scale of automation from soup to nuts is mind-boggling.
The I-T Department website is where it all begins. Once the system authenticates you, you are transacting with myriad sub-agencies in real time. You virtually visit the tax form centre and download the proper form. Then you click away to the TRACES site to download the latest TDS withholding. When ready, you fill out your form offline and the validation is performed right on your screen. In fact, the final .xml file is not even generated unless the program checks your inputs for inconsistencies and common errors. You upload the file and the data automatically populates the government’s databases with no government employee input.
Signing the tax form, to verify that it was indeed you who filled out the form and not someone unauthorised, is also fully automated. If you don’t already have an electronic verification code (which acts as your unique signature), you can simply sign into your bank account and accomplish verification through a simple NEFT transaction. If you owe taxes, a separate NEFT transaction seamlessly transfers funds from you to the government, no OTP required. If you are owed a refund, money comes into your bank account again; no humans involved, thank you very much.
Because of the web of interconnectivity across banks, the Aadhaar agency, the various branches of the I-T department and employers, who by law are required to report withholdings to TRACES which taxpayers can reconcile and check real time, India has successfully implemented a tax regime that has probably eliminated the jobs of 80 per cent of people, most of whom were previously just pushing paper. In the process, the country has gone green as there is no paper to make, print on, fill, mail, or store.
The shocking truth is that these jobs are never coming back. Meanwhile, error rates in tax filing and reconciliation have dropped precipitously and the government gets to keep more of what it collects as administrative costs plummet.
In this efficient environment, where productivity has dramatically increased, the government and the big public sector banks refuse to share the dividends with the taxpayers through tax cuts or better public investment. Instead, the government, through the power vested in it as the sole authority to tax and spend, has decided to fatten the salaries of its employees to a tune of ₹1.05 lakh crore annually. What’s more, bank employees have vowed to strike later this month demanding that all further reforms be halted immediately so that their already bloated wages can be further cemented from competition.
In an otherwise exciting storyline, as it often happens in Bollywood movies, this is unfortunately the sad ending.