Duty on imported books could restrict flow of knowledge

The Budget 2019-20 imposed an import duty of 5% on foreign-made books. I have been working in the publishing industry since 1974 and have not seen any customs duty on import of educational books. As part of the budget, the Minister of Finance has announced Rs 400-crore for higher education institutions (much appreciated by these institutions) to be “world class” but in the same breath, a 5% import duty on books has been imposed.

29 Jul 2019 | By PrintWeek India

According to Capexil, books and pamphlets imports in 2017-18 stand at Rs 157.35-crore and exports stand at Rs 215.73-crore. This indicates that Indian publishing industry is doing well compared with other commodities in terms of import versus export.

So, the question arises, why impose an import duty on educational books, especially when it will only bring in a small revenue of Rs 8-crore or so?

Besides, I do not know how much it is going to cost the customs department to collect such a small import duty and in return make books more expensive. This may result in delays in customs clearance of consignments, demurrage, extra paperwork, difficulty in doing business and ultimately defeating the governments’ initiative on ‘ease of doing business’. This will also make importers unhappy who are already in very small numbers and going out of business due to onslaught of e-books.

The country has always supported education and made a freer flow of knowledge and information for the benefit of students, researchers and educational institutions. Most imported books are purchased by institutions of higher learning and ultimately they will need to pay these higher costs! Research institutions depend largely on foreign publications for the latest research on various subjects which Indian books and journals do not provide. I fear a move like this will further limit what these institutions can purchase at affordable prices. This new import duty will also affect school libraries who have very limited budget for purchase of books.

We should be cautious about the message we are giving out to students and institutions of learning, as well as our neighbours in South Asia who might impose duties on the import of Indian books in return. The day knowledge flows from East to West, book imports will die a natural death anyway resulting in savings on foreign exchange! But even to reach that stage India would need to keep the gates open for free flow of knowledge and bring in “ease of import of books”.

(The author is member, FICCI publishing committee and managing director, Aditya Books)

(The piece first appeared in blog.ficci.com.)