Pity the small traders! Steadfast supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party, small traders have been bitten twice by its government in quick succession. Bleeding economically and apprehensive about the future, it would seem logical for them to desert the party of their choice.

In November, demonetisation sent small traders scurrying around to exchange their invalidated currency notes for new ones at a hefty discount. This loss was aggravated as the market, starved of liquidity, has remained sluggish since then.

Eight months later, small traders are agitated about the Goods and Services Tax, which came into effect on July 1. Apart from its complex mechanism to file returns, and several slabs of taxes, they are frothing with rage because GST has now criminalised economic offences.

Unlike in the past, anyone who is deemed to have evaded taxes between Rs 2 crore and Rs 5 crore will be held guilty of having committed a non-cognisable offence. Tax evasion above Rs 5 crore will be considered a cognisable offence – traders accused of this can be arrested without a warrant. Similarly, a person convicted once for either a cognisable or non-cognisable offence can be arrested for evading tax of any amount. Such stringent provisions could ensure tax compliance and swell the state’s revenue.

But then, as so many traders point out, they depend on chartered accountants to file their returns, either because they lack the requisite skills or are pressed for time, more so now as GST requires filing of tax returns three times a month.

This means that a trader is liable to be punished for their chartered accountant’s mistakes, and a genuine difference in the interpretation of a GST provision between the trader and the tax authority can also be criminalised – and punished.

Arun Singhania, president, Delhi Hindustani Mercantile Association, which was formed in 1893, said, “Traders feel that GST presupposes that they are thieves. We have been stigmatised.”

Stigmatisation often justifies excesses based on suspicion. The GST Act indeed puts a legal imprimatur on suspicion – its provision allows officers of the rank of joint commissioner and above to order an arrest if they “believe” taxes are being evaded. The word “believes” could well become a cover for the officer’s whims or vindictiveness.

Now this does not mean we should not pay taxes. It is just that the current game is highly biased against the small player.