The protest by traders in Maharashtra against the state government's new local bodies tax (LBT) took a nasty turn in Mumbai today with the police resorting to lathi-charge to disperse thousands of protestors gathered at Azad Maidan, a popular protest site in the city.
The gathering at Azad Maidan under the aegis of the Federation of Associations of Maharashtra was promptly supported by opposition parties, including the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Shiv Sena.
Traders of all sizes, from major 'white commodity' shops like electronics and appliance outlets to roadside panwallas and tobacconists, are up in arms against the new tax for the last 10 days or more.
The frequent shut-down of shops and the lack of fresh supplies has seriously hit consumers, prompting the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) to offer talks with the protestors.
Over 5,000 traders, aided and abetted by political party workers, today blocked roads and disrupted traffic at the busy junction near Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, close to Azad Maidan. The police said they arrested over 700 traders but released them immediately.
Tempers cooled down after Additional Commissioner of Police Krishna Prakash arrived at the spot and asked the cops to calm down.
''Who told you to resort to a lathi-charge? Let them protest peacefully,'' he reportedly said. Prakash told police personnel to form a human chain to restrict protesters at Azad Maidan.
The traders' bodies in Mumbai have demanded that the BMC specify the period during which LBT returns can be filed, what percentage of returns filed by traders the BMC will assess, and increasing the lower limit of turnover for a trader for LBT from Rs1-1.5 lakh to Rs4-5 lakh.
Municipal Commissioner Sitaram Kunte said, ''The Mumbai Municipal Corporation Act, 1888 needs to be amended to introduce LBT in the city. We are still drafting amendments to the Act and rules based on which it would be executed.'' He was speaking to media persons even as traders were agitating at Azad Maidan.
''There is a long procedure to be followed before the system comes into force,'' he added.
The amendments will require an approval from both the state assembly and council before being sent to the governor for his nod. Only then will the amendment will come into force.
Kunte said they were framing norms so that the dealers wouldn't be harassed by the BMC as the traders fear. He added that levying surcharge on value added tax, as demand by traders, was not a ''doable'' alternative to LBT.