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Columns - Errors & Omissions Expected


Do we deserve a place among the `deadbeat nations'?

D. Murali

ONE of the many architectural works of Charles Correa is India's Permanent Mission to the United Nations. As the URL of that office www.un.int/india/about_pmi.html would inform, it has "a striking personality and embodies the cultural iconography of the country it represents".

There are some good pictures of the Mission, not on its own site but on www.galinsky.com/buildings/indiamission, because "Galinsky is a free service for people enjoying buildings worldwide".

A photo of "the Indian Mission to the United Nations" figures also in www.nydailynews.com, but this one is for not paying "more than $22 million in property tax."

If you rush to www.un.int/india to find out what the Mission's site says about this, you would find under `News & Press Releases', a lone message: "Coming soon!"

The entire structure symbolises not only the timeless richness of Indian architectural forms, but also conveys the weight, fluency and authority that India seeks to impress in the international comity of nations, reads the info about the building. Yet, I don't think that Correa would have visualised that his client would find a place in the hall of shame.

Among the "7 who are shamed" on the Daily News, India ranks third. On top is Hungary with a $49.7 million due for its "eight-story, 86,400-square-foot UN mission and consulate", followed by the Philippines, $24.1 million for "a bank, a restaurant and Philippine Airlines in its huge, 35,000-square-foot" building. Guinea $5.4 million, Mongolia $2.8 million, Nepal $836,000, and Nigeria $689,000 complete the list.

"Foreign missions are exempt from New York City property tax - but only to the extent that each property is actually used for diplomatic purposes," explains the news report. `Free ride' is only for office space used by the country's UN delegation and the local consulate.

"Also exempt are one residence for one UN ambassador and one residence for a consul general," adds the report.

Thus, presumably, these claims from the city taxman are for non-diplomatic use of premises. Info on Galinsky's site cites Susanna Sirefman's New York - A guide to recent architecture, and may be indicative of usage: "Twenty-eight stories high, the lower four floors are administrative offices for the Chancery of the Indian Government. Above this sit residential quarters for mission employees."

Now, who are all living in our building? "The Indian UN mission is a big mystery for the city. Indian officials have barred New York City property inspectors at its ornate, two-story brass front doors," frets Daily News.

Perhaps, we have a right to information as much as the NY taxman insists. Or, at least, we'll let them share the data with us, once they come to find out! Hungarians too seem to have refused to let city inspectors "take inventory" of inmates in their building.

On Daily News, the `special report' by William Sherman and Bob Port is titled "A towering slap in city's face" and begins thus: "Foreign countries that own prime city real estate worth more than $200 million have found an easy way to avoid property tax in New York City - just refuse to pay." When they get a bill, "deadbeat nations often just ignore it". What a slap!

Again, "When a city tax assessor knocks, they often will not open the consulate door," write the authors, citing "city computer records obtained by the Daily News".

What's shackling the city officials is that the law doesn't allow them to "foreclose or even enforce a lien on a foreign nation's property, even when it is rented or used for commercial purposes", and so help has come from Washington.

A quote from Senator Hillary Clinton, plugged into the report reads: "It is simply outrageous for property taxes to be blatantly ignored. New Yorkers face severe financial penalties if they do this, and so should diplomats." There is also a comment of Senator Chuck Schumer that it makes no sense to "let foreign diplomats get away without paying property taxes and parking tickets".

But, faced with foreigners who "cannot be forced to cooperate, or even communicate" there is an amendment in the works: Foreign Operations Bill "to freeze foreign aid to countries by amounts they owe New York City for property tax or parking tickets."

Forget about aid; NY city is suing India, along with the Philippines and Mongolia. Last year, Turkey was dragged to court "for $70 million in back property tax" though the dues were settled "for only $5 million".

A quote from Robert Kandel, "a real estate attorney" fighting our case, says: "India's space is protected from New York City's taxing power by the right those nations have to security and foreign sovereign immunity."

Sounds defensible?

E&OE@TheHindu.co.in

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