The Game Changer



VANAJA SARNA was a mem­ber of the Cen­tral Board of In­di­rect Taxes and Cus­toms (CBIC) — ear­lier called the Cen­tral Board of Ex­cise and Cus­toms — for two years. The then chair­per­son, Na­jib Shah, was to re­tire on March 31, 2017, just ahead of the sched­uled roll­out of the goods and ser­vices tax or GST.

Be­ing the se­nior-most CBIC mem­ber af­ter Shah, Fi­nance Min­is­ter Arun Jait­ley asked her in early 2017 to start at­tend­ing GST Coun­cil meet­ings, even though the gov­ern­ment had not de­cided Shah’s suc­ces­sor. The CBIC chair­per­son­ship does not au­to­mat­i­cally go to the se­nior-most mem­ber. So, Sarna de­cided to ap­ply. “I knew the risk in­volved. If it didn’t go well, I knew my neck would be on the line. They would have chucked me out,” she says.

For a rev­enue ser­vice of­fi­cer who in the early part of her ca­reer went on raids at night and spied on tax evaders alone (some­times with her hus­band, also an IRS of­fi­cer), a suc­cess­ful GST roll­out would have been the best way to sign off a ca­reer span­ning over 35 years. Sarna took over as chair­per­son of the CBIC on April 1, 2017, three months be­fore the July 1 dead­line for GST. “I had three months to get my­self in or­der and get the en­tire staff (of the 55,000 em­ploy­ees, 35,000-40,000 were di­rectly in­volved) in or­der,” says Sarna.

The task in front of her was to re­or­gan­ise the depart­ment, train not just cen­tral but also state of­fi­cers, start an aware­ness cam­paign and get tax­pay­ers to reg­is­ter. “We had 3,000 ranges (small of­fices). We con­verted them into GST seva kendras. We gave our of­fi­cers lap­tops so that peo­ple could reg­is­ter in the of­fice premises it­self,” says Sarna.

In the first week of June, she had to give a pre­sen­ta­tion to the prime mi­nis-

ter ap­pris­ing him of the prepa­ra­tions. “The last ques­tion the PM asked was if we were ready for the July 1 launch, and I told him we would be ready by June 15,” says Sarna. She ad­mits there were glitches but says they were in­evitable given the enor­mity of the change.

To­day, as she looks back, she says she had no time to think how it was to be at the fore­front of such a big change as a woman. “Frankly, there are many women in rev­enue ser­vices,” she says. Of course, be­ing a woman, there have been some in­ter­est­ing mo­ments. “The global CEO of L’oreal was to meet the fi­nance min­is­ter, but as he was busy, I was asked to at­tend to him. When he saw me, he was very happy. Later, the fi­nance min­is­ter told me that the L’oreal CEO was very happy to see me be­cause I ap­ply a lot of ka­jal. So, the fi­nance min­is­ter jok­ingly said should we give ex­emp­tion to ka­jal then,” says Sarna, who did her school­ing in In­dia, Cuba and Beirut, grad­u­ated from Delhi Univer­sity with Psy­chol­ogy hon­ours and did her masters in in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions from JNU.

Sarna, a Bharatanatyam dancer, used to per­form in many coun­tries, till her 40s. “Now that I am re­tired, I want to restart my per­for­mances,” she says.

WHY SHE MAT­TERS Took up the mas­sive chal­lenge of rolling out GST

VANAJA SARNA Ex-Chair­per­son,CBIC

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