Vaneisa: Paying to learn—the lingering issue with VAT on books

In the late 1990s, in response to one of my weekly columns, retired Professor Emeritus Desmond Imbert called me. It was the beginning of a rather odd friendship that went on for years—when he died in 2010, we had still never met in person.

Communication was always at his instigation, telephone calls and e-mails. He was chatty, given to critiques, and was an erudite man whose love for literature was evident despite his engineering background, which he never discussed.

The late Professor Emeritus Desmond Imbert.

He would often cite lines from classic works to ­illustrate the many points he took pleasure in making.

I recall this as I want to raise the infuriating issue of the Value Added Tax that had been added to many ­invaluable necessities in 2016, including books and computers.

Colm Imbert, about whom I learned a lot from listening to his father, could not have had an easy childhood in the presence of such a rapier tongue and unforgiving eye. It shows.

Minister of Finance Colm Imbert.
(Copyright Office of the Parliament 2022)

I believe, Colm, as the Minister of Finance overseeing this absurd tax, your father would have been dreadfully ashamed of you.

On its own, it was a blow to the concept of education. What made it worse was the cavalier dismissal of the outrage of citizens—it’s a fiscal policy, not a social one, you said.

When the changes were announced, several respected voices of intellect and reason shared their concerns: Bridget Brereton, Debbie Jacob, Marina Salandy-Brown, Mark Lyndersay, Gabrielle Hosein, and the late Reggie Dumas and Gerry Besson, among them.

Firemen were tasked with burning books in dystopian futuristic thriller, Farenheit 451.

The Value Added Tax (Amendment to Schedule 2) Order, 2016 (Chapter 75:06), noted the distinctions:

“The books and printed material which have remained zero-rated are workbooks, activity books, exercise books and other books used for educational purposes in schools, colleges and other educational institutions.

“Other books and printed material such as newspapers, magazines, photograph and stamp albums, will be subject to VAT.”

Image: Value Added Tax.

Booksellers and other interested parties asked questions about how books were being evaluated as educational. Who determines what qualifies as an educational book?

In 2016, around the time of this, then-education minister Anthony Garcia accused school textbook sellers and publishers of being part of a racket.

Rico Charran, head of the Book Industry Organisation of Trinidad and Tobago (I didn’t know such a thing existed) said it was a complex situation arising from books being accepted for the curriculum (and the rental/loan programme); publishers printing; the ministry not ordering; parents panicking, and booksellers selling.

Students at the Nelson Street Girls’ RC Primary School in 2020.
(Copyright Nadia Sankar)

Was there a connection between the two events? Let’s imagine they occurred around the same time, coincidentally. How come eight years later, booksellers still don’t know the process by which books are being judged?

The people I mentioned came from backgrounds that encouraged reading, nurtured the quest for knowledge and the capacity for critical thinking. VAT on books was unthinkable then, as it still is in many countries.

For someone like me, coming from an environment where books held no magic, no purpose, except as school texts, what would I have become if I could not experience books?

The joy of reading.

As I entered adulthood and started working at the Express, I would squat among the piles of books lining the pavement on Broadway, struggling to find a treasure among the heaps of second-hand books I could afford.

We complain about so many ailments in our society, yet we do precious little to fix things. The instinctive response to the idea of libraries was a hawk-and-spit one. They are obsolete, said the pedestrian brain, not recognising the return to reading physical books.

But the most insidious effect of this tax on books and computers is the message it has sent about the value of knowledge. What do you think it has communicated? That learning is a leisurely pastime?

Fire fi dat…

I used to get bawled out all the time because my head was “always bury in a book”. I could never amount to anything with such a lack of ambition. Have we not seen the impact of the now-embedded functional illiteracy?

As usual, Prof Brereton summed up its absurdity perfectly when she wrote about it in 2016:

“VAT will be applied to all ‘literary books’—this means novels of all kinds, modern and classics; volumes of short stories, plays and poetry; non-fiction books (biographies and autobiographies, works on social and natural sciences and history, books about art and music).

Have a read…

“[…] I really wonder if this decision has been well thought out. I can’t imagine the revenue gains will be large. But a message will certainly be sent out: that this government is not interested in encouraging the population, from school kids to senior citizens, to read, buy, collect and share books.”

It is time this uncivilised behaviour ends. We have been seeing the impact of all the little seemingly innocuous missteps. The society has degenerated into a barbaric state, and few, if any, still have the energy to try to nurture it back to life.

Minister Imbert, this is something you can address without busting the state’s coffers.

Finance Minister Colm Imbert responds to questions in Parliament.
(Copyright WEFM)

And if you want to shore up some taxes, here’s an idea. Why don’t you apply VAT to firearms, legal and illegal? Why not erect guard booths (like Inshan Ishmael’s that was demolished) at all the ports of entry into the country?

And then have the Minister of National Security spend his days and nights hopping from one to the other, as the tax collector.

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About Vaneisa Baksh

Vaneisa Baksh is a columnist with the Trinidad Express, an editor and a cricket historian. She is the author of a biography of Sir Frank Worrell.

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