On January 25, the Jammu and Kashmir government, currently headed by Governor Satya Pal Malik, issued a notification saying that the purchase of immoveable property, including land, by women will attract stamp duty of 3%.

This reversed an order issued by former Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti on May 11, which abolished the 5% stamp duty that was being charged for immoveable property acquired in a woman’s name. Mufti had said at that time that the zero stamp duty policy for women was to “encourage families to register their properties in the name of their sisters, daughters, wives and mothers”. The May order also also cut the stamp duty rate for men by 2%, bringing it to 5%.

Principal secretary Navin K Choudhary said two factors prompted the January 25 notification. First, the zero stamp duty regime had led to revenue losses to the exchequer to the tune of Rs 300 crore a year. Second, business establishments and companies were misusing this provision by registering deeds in the name of their female employees. “There has been no revocation order,” said Choudhary. “We have just changed the rates of stamp duty. At 3%, it is still the minimum for women in India.”

The decision has drawn a chorus of protests in the state. Political parties across the spectrum, including Mufti’s Peoples Democratic Party and the BJP, criticised the order.

Priya Sethi, the president of the BJP’s mahila morcha in Jammu and Kashmir, said the government rationale of financial loss was “not justifiable”. “This scheme was actually started by Prime Minister Narendra Modi when he was the chief minister of Gujarat,” said Sethi. “When the Central government has created a number of women empowerment schemes, the waiving of stamp duty should not have been an issue.”

On February 4, the Kashmir Women’s Collective held a public meeting in Srinagar to protest against the revocation of the zero stamp duty order.

‘Decision to empower women’

Naeem Akhtar, who was a cabinet minister in the Mehbooba Mufti government, explained that his government’s decision to introduce zero stamp duty for women last year was aimed at encouraging people to register their properties in the name of female members of the family. “Our idea was to empower women,” said Akhtar. “Once a woman owns property, she gets better bargaining power within society and the domestic set-up.”

The BJP, which was part of the coalition government led by Mufti, was on board with the move. “There was no disagreement between the coalition partners when we took the decision,” said Sethi, a former minister of state. “This was a much-needed initiative to empower them. Not only did it provide economic security to the women, its aim was to act as a defence against violence.”

Families buying property in the state welcomed it. When Shabir Ahmad* and his wife Shahida Bano* purchased land worth Rs 22 lakh in September, it was registered in her name. “The decision saved me more than Rs 1.5 lakh of stamp duty,” said Ahmad, an engineer. “At the same time, it ensured economic security for my wife.”

Bano, a government employee, agreed. “We do not have any problems in our marriage but one should consider the future as well,” she said. “Tomorrow, if there is something wrong, I can survive independently because of my job. But not all women have it. In that context, the decision to revoke stamp duty means a lot for a woman who is unemployed or illiterate.”

Women attend a meeting organised in Srinagar by the Kashmir Women’s Collective to protest against the revocation of the zero stamp duty for women order. (Photo credit: Wasim Nabi).

Loss of revenue?

Revenue officials say the zero stamp duty for women order spurred a significant increase in the registration of immoveable property in the name of women. An official gave the example of one patwari halqa, or revenue zone, in Srinagar. Between November 2017 and May 2018, the revenue department had registered 91 properties in women’s names and 131 properties in men’s names in that zone. “Once stamp duty was exempted for females in May 2018, the situation changed entirely,” said the official. “We had 182 registrations in the name of females as compared to just 50 registrations for males till the end of the year.”

Revenue officials said they had not conducted a survey of the impact of the zero stamp duty order across the state. “The data is available at the local departmental level but we have not made any assessment like that,” a senior revenue official said.

Cutting losses?

Political parties and women’s rights activists questioned the government’s argument that the zero stamp duty order had caused losses to the state exchequer.

According to the Jammu and Kashmir Economic Survey of 2017, stamp duty and registration has been contributing Rs 200 crore to Rs 250 crore to the state exchequer every year since 2012-’13. This is a fraction of the state’s tax revenue. For instance, in 2016-’17, Jammu and Kashmir earned Rs 7,819 crore in tax revenue, of which stamp duty and registration contributed only 2.9%.

Akhtar said he did not understand why Rs 200 crore was a big deal for a state that was spending Rs 1 lakh crore every year. “This government, without any mandate, has just raised a loan of Rs 8,000 crores and committed the state to a lot of expenditure in the future,” he said.

Claiming that vested interests were misleading the governor, he pointed to another financial decision that had led to outrage in the Valley last year. This was the matter of the group medical insurance scheme for state government employees, which was awarded to Anil Ambani’s Reliance General Insurance Limited. The administration eventually scrapped the scheme in October, citing fraud. “Three months down the line, we are not informed of any action against those responsible for it,” said Akhtar.

Mantasha Binti Rashid, a member of the Kashmir Women’s Collective, objected to the government’s argument that it had revoked the zero stamp duty order because it was being misused. “One of the reasons put forth for revoking zero stamp duty is alleged corruption and evasion of stamp duty by the rich,” she said. “But is it the only way used by tax evaders or those with black money?”

She conceded that the state was losing revenue because of the order, but asked if stamp duty was “the number one source of revenue for the government?”

Jammu and Kashmir Governor Satya Pal Malik. (Photo credit: IANS).

Addressing inequality

For women’s rights activists, the zero stamp duty order was crucial to setting right entrenched gender inequalities.

According to the Census 2011, women constitute 47% of the state’s total population. According to the National Family Health Survey 2015-’16, only 33% women in Jammu and Kashmir aged between 15 and 49 own a house. The corresponding figure for men is 81%. Meanwhile, just about 23% women in the state own land, compared to 73% men in the same age group. “Only 18 percent of all women age 15-49 were employed in the 12 months preceding the survey; in the same period, 75 percent of all men age 15-49 were employed,” the survey said. Similarly, only 56.43% of women in the state are literate as compared to 76.75% of men.

“When we have such a socio-economic set-up, the question of economic security of women achieves higher significance,” said Shamima Firdous, National Conference leader and former chairperson of state women’s commission. “During my tenure, most of the cases which came before the commission were of domestic violence and desertion of wives and children by husbands. These women were helpless as they depended on their husbands economically.”

Firdous added that the zero-stamp duty order “increased the importance of a female member in the family”.

Rashid pointed out that the order also helped address a gender bias in matters of inheritance. “In our society, the idea of a woman asserting her right to inheritance is frowned upon,” she said. “To understand it better, we carried out a small survey by asking 25 women on whose parental side property had been distributed among siblings: ‘did they get their share?’ Only one had got it. The question is, how many women have actually got their share of inheritance?”

For women’s rights activists like Rashid, the reimposition of stamp duty for women showed the government, bureaucracy and society at large lacked a “nuanced understanding” of women’s issues. “Where public interest by and large is at stake, monetary considerations do not matter,” said Rashid. “That is the whole idea of a democratic set-up.”

* Name changed to protect their identity.