Taxing books restricts learning. The government should immediately revoke the decision of taxing the source of knowledge
The government has imposed 10 percent tax on all types of books imported from other countries, ever since the decision was announced in the budget of this fiscal year. This has had a huge impact on Nepali academia. Students, publishers and book sellers have opposed this move but Nepali printing industries have stood in its favor.
Attempts had been made to tax books in the past too. Finance ministers Ram Saran Mahat and Madhukar Shamsher Rana had tried to impose ten and five percent taxes respectively. But they withdrew this decision after opposition from the students. Current Finance Minister Yubaraj Khatiwada has imposed it again.
The government claims that this taxation has been enforced with the purpose of curbing the import of commodities affecting exports and encouraging domestic markets and protecting domestic industry. But customs duty has made the books expensive and it looks like the government is set to control knowledge. Imposing customs or extra tax on the source of knowledge is against international treaties. There is no practice of importing, selling, distributing or transmitting any kind of tariffs, fees and customs on books. Forget the Western countries, even China and India do not have such provisions.
UNESCO recognizes that no any restrictions will be placed on bringing books. It has a clear policy of not imposing any kind of customs for importation of books. Article 4 of UNESCO’s Agreement on the Importation of Educational, Scientific and Cultural Materials states that no charges, including customs duty, will be incurred when exporting books, publications and various documents. Nepal has been state party of this agreement since 1953.
Printed books are exempt from customs duty and VAT as per the provisions of the protocols of Florence Agreement. It states that no customs duty and other charges shall be levied on books. The Bern Convention for the Protection of Literacy and Artistic Curves (1886) states that the printed books should be free of customs fees and taxes. Nepal adopted this agreement in 2005. As a party to these international treaties, Nepal is obliged to follow the provisions therein.
Besides, Article 31 of our constitution ensures that everyone has access to the right to education. Article 51 has the provision for ensuring citizens’ access to knowledge. Even our National Education Policy (2020) has accepted that it is the responsibility of the state to ensure easy availability of books. Thus the government’s decision to tax imported books is against our own constitution. Taxing books can discourage reading habits among students. And this is wrong especially when reading culture has just started to flourish among students in Nepal.
The government’s claim that the decision is meant for promoting domestic publishers is not convincing. Some of our publishers print books from India because it is cheaper there. This does not have major impact on our economy. According to data of Nepal Rastra Bank (NRB), five billion books are imported to Nepal annually from third countries including India. Taxing ten percent on this means the government earns Rs 100 million a year. This is much less than the amount the government allocates to three MPs per year. New Delhi’s publishing houses also get their books printed in Beijing. Some publishers do so in Singapore. Why cannot Nepali publishers have their books printed elsewhere?
If the government really wants to promote domestic publishers, it needs to make raw materials such as printing machines, paper, ink and plates available at affordable rates. The Janak Siksha Samagri Kendra, which has the responsibility of publishing school textbooks, has often failed to provide books to students on time. This is in no way because of import of books from other countries.
The government needs to ensure that Nepali publishers improve print quality and develop competitive market. The government has not provided modern technology and affordable raw materials in order to enable the indigenous publishers. Imposing tax on books does not develop competitive ability. It, instead, makes it difficult for the students to get books they require to enhance their knowledge.
Students of higher studies have been at the receiving end of this decision. Up to 90 percent books in medical, paramedical and applied health sciences and about 85 percent books of undergraduate courses, including MBBS, are imported. Professors recommend reading Indian books in Engineering and Computer Science. Nepal’s books are not of international standard. Even most books recommended for the students of law come from foreign countries. About 80 percent books the universities recommend are from foreign publishing houses.
In this context, how can Nepal provide quality education to students by imposing tax on the very materials which are the source of their learning? What kind of human resources will we produce if we restrict students’ access to books? Why should the government control reading habits? A book should not be thought of as other commercial or commodity products. Intellectual goods cannot and should not be taxed.
Taxing books restricts learning. The government should immediately revoke this decision of taxing the source of knowledge.
The author is a BALLB student at Kathmandu School of Law