By Jaideep Sarin
Chandigarh/Amritsar, Feb 13 , 2018 :The popular community kitchen -- better known as the "langar" -- of gurdwaras in northern India is feeling the pinch of the GST regime that came into force seven months ago.
The cash-rich Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), which manages gurdwaras, or Sikh shrines, across Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh, has claimed that the Goods and Services Tax (GST) is putting an extra burden on its finances in running the free food service.
At the Golden Temple complex, which is home to the holiest of Sikh shrines, the Harmandir Sahib, the SGPC claims to have paid nearly Rs 2 crore (about $310,000) as GST.
The Golden Temple complex provides over 100,000 people free food on weekends and other rush days. On normal days, over 50,000 people partake langar served selflessly at the complex to people from various religions, cultures, castes, countries and gender.
The community kitchen, which serves completely vegetarian food, at the complex is one of the largest such in the world.
"The SGPC has paid Rs 2 crore as GST, while purchasing ration for langar and parshad, ever since the new tax regime came into force last year. From July 1, 2017, to January 31, 2018, we have paid Rs 2 crore as GST on purchase of different items required in the langar at the Golden Temple," SGPC spokesperson Diljit Singh Bedi said.
Hundreds of tonnes of wheat flour, desi ghee, pulses, vegetables, milk, sugar and rice are used, along with millions of litres of water, annually at the Golden Temple complex and other gurdwaras to prepare langar.
The SGPC, which has written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley and the GST Council in the past, continues to fight to get GST exemption on the purchase of raw material that it has to procure.
SGPC officials say that gurdwaras across the country could be serving free food to nearly 10 million people on a daily basis.
The SGPC is also upset with Jaitley's recent statement that "no GST has been imposed on the food served in langars in the various gurdwaras".
SGPC president Gobind Singh Longowal recently took exception to the statement.
"The statement is far from the truth and facts. GST is being charged on the purchase of langar items," Longowal pointed out in Amritsar.
"GST is levied on only products that are sold. Food in gurdwaras is distributed free, so there is no question of levying GST. There is no GST on atta or rice, if somebody says that I am buying ghee for temple," Jaitley was recently quoted as saying.
The "One Nation One Tax" regime under the newly-introduced GST, as per the SGPC estimates, is going to put an extra burden of over Rs 10 crore on this socio-religious activity at the Golden Temple complex in Amritsar and other gurdwaras.
The SGPC, the mini-parliament of the Sikh religion that manages Sikh shrines, which has an over Rs 1,100-crore annual budget, wants the GST Council and the central government to exempt purchases made for the langar sewa from GST. Various items procured for the langar fall in different tax slabs ranging from five to 18 per cent.
Besides the Golden Temple, the SGPC runs the langar service in other famous Sikh shrines like Takht Keshgarh Sahib in Anandpur Sahib (where the modern-day Khalsa Panth was established on April 13, 1699, by Guru Gobind Singh), Takht Damdama Sahib at Talwandi Sabo in Bathinda district and scores of other gurdwaras under it.
The langar Sewa is a socio-religious activity that is part of the Sikh religious ethos from the time of the first Sikh Guru, Nanak Dev (1469-1539). It was started to emphasise equality in society regardless of religion, caste, colour and creed. The langar service is funded from donations made by people at the gurdwaras.
"The SGPC spends around Rs 75 crore to purchase desi ghee, sugar and pulses. Now, it will have to bear a financial burden of Rs 10 crore on these purchases as they come under the 5 to 18 per cent GST bracket," Union Food Processing Minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal wrote to Jaitely last year, seeking exemption from the GST Act for all purchases made by the SGPC for langar sewa.
The GST Act provides for exempting eligible institutions/businesses but only on the GST Council's recommendation.
After being initiated by Guru Nanak Dev, the Guru ka Langar tradition was fully established by the third Sikh Guru, Amar Dass. It is said that even Mughal emperor Akbar once came and partook langar among the ordinary people.
Hundreds of people volunteer on a daily basis at the Golden Temple complex and other gurdwaras to prepare and serve food and wash used utensils at the langars. The volunteers include scores of women and children as well. People partake langar while sitting on the floor in the langar halls of gurdwaras.(IANS)
(Jaideep Sarin can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)