1. These petitions arose out of the proceedings to assess the petitioners to tax under the provisions of the Madras Plantations Agricultural Income-tax Act, 1955 (Madras Act V of 1955), hereinafter referred to as the Act, and the rules framed thereunder. Section 3 of the Act provided for the levy of a tax on and after 1st April, 1955, on the total agricultural income of the previous, year of the assessee. The year of assessment with which I am concerned in these proceedings is 1955-56, the 'previous year' in relation to which ended on 31st March, 1955.
2. In the year of account 1954-55 a Hindu undivided family which consisted' of six members owned the plantations, income from which had to be assessed under the Act. On 17th August, 1954, there was a partition between the members.. Five of the six quandom coparceners entered into a partnership, which was eventually registered under the provisions of the Act. The Hindu undivided family, the petitioner in W.P. No. 989 of 1956, was assessed on the basis of the income up to the date of partition. The registered partnership was assessed on the income from 17th August, 1954 to 31st March, 1955. These assessments were ordered by the Agricultural Income-tax Officer on 31st March, 1956. It was common ground that in completing the assessments the provisions of Rule 10 of the Madras
3. Plantations Agricultural Income-tax Rules, 1955 (here in after referred to as the Rules) were applied, and the income received in the year of account 1st April, 1954, to 31st March, 1955, in relation to coffee produced during the period anterior to 1st, April, 1954, was excluded.
4. The Rules came into force on 1st September, 1955. The Rules were in effect re-issued with certain amendments, which are not material for our present purposes, on 17th December, 1955. The relevant portion of Rule 10 ran:
The agricultural income from coffee for a particular year for purposes of assessment shall be--(a) the proceeds of the coffee crop of the previous year realised by the auction of the crop by the Indian Coffee Board....
The proceeds of the coffee crop treated by the Indian Coffee Board as the crop of earlier years shall be excluded.
5. On 10th April, 1956, the Government, in exercise of the powers conferred on them by Section 61 of the Act directed an amendment of the Rules, and Rule 10 stood deleted. The Government further directed:
The amendment hereby made shall be deemed to have come into force with effect on and from the 1st September, 1955.
6. The learned Government Pleader contended that the position thus was as if Rule 10 had never been part of the Rules from 1st September, 1955.
7. On 14th July, 1956, the Agricultural Income-tax Officer, Batlagundu, issued a notice to each of the petitioners, which purported to be under Section 36 of the Act. In that notice the Agricultural Income-tax Officer recorded:
I intend to make an order of assessment in respect of coffee for 1955-56 consequent on the abolition of Rule 10....You must state your objections if any before 25th July, 1956.
9. The petitioners filed their objections, the scope of which was thus summed up by the Agricultural Income-tax Officer:
The assessee firm has objected to the de novo assessment on the following grounds:
(1) The assessee firm contends that under Section 36 of the Act the Agricultural Income-tax Officer can only rectify any mistake apparent on the record of assessment and that there is absolutely no mistake on the records.
(2) The assessee firm also contends that the original order of assessment following Rule 10 was valid and proper and the assessment cannot be re-opened simply by virtue of a subsequent deletion of the said rule.
10. The Agricultural Income-tax Officer overruled these objections, and on 31st July, 1956, he purported to revise the assessments. He recorded in his order:
In my proceedings, dated 31st March, 1956, the original assessment orders were passed. In arriving at the income, Rule 10 of the Madras Plantations Agricultural Income-tax Rules, 1955, was applied. The revised assessment is now made for 1955-56 consequent on the deletion of that rule treating the original orders as null and void. A notice under Section 36 of the Act was issued and objections have been received for the proposed revision.
11. I have already pointed out that these objections were overruled.
12. The petitioners applied under Article 226 of the Constitution for the issue of writs of certiorari to set aside the orders of assessment, dated 31st July, 1956.
13. Since, in my opinion, the principal contention of the learned Counsel for the petitioners, that in the circumstances of this case the jurisdiction conferred by Section 36 of the Act could not have been invoked or exercised by the Agricultural Income-tax Officer, must prevail, it may not be necessary to examine all the other pleas of the petitioners.
14. Section 36, which is analogous to Section 35 of the Income-tax Act, provides for the rectification of mistakes apparent from the record of assessment. The relevant portion of Section 36(1) runs:.the Agricultural Income-tax Officer may at any time within three years from the date of any assessment. ...order passed by him of his own motion rectify any mistake apparent from the record of. ...assessment...and shall within the like period, rectify any such mistake which has been brought to his notice by the assessee.
15. The Agricultural Income-tax Officer was of the view, that the deletion of Rule 10 on 10th April, 1956, which was subsequent to the assessments completed on 31st March, 1956, rendered the orders of assessment, dated 31st March, 1956, null and void. The learned Government Pleader very properly, in my opinion, made no attempt to sustain the correctness of that view. At one stage the Agricultural Income-tax Officer purported to order a de novo assessment. That was of course, consistent with his view that the orders, dated 31st March, 1956, had become null and void. At another stage of the order he purported to revise the orders of assessment, dated 31st March, 1956. Obviously there could have been no scope to revise or rectify an order non est in law. It would have been non est in law if it was null and void. It may not be necessary to go further into the question because, as I said, the learned Government Pleader made no attempt to sustain the correctness of the null and void basis of revision.
16. The finality accorded by the Act to a completed assessment was left untouched by the notification, dated 10th April, 1956, which no doubt deleted Rule 10 with effect from 1st September, 1955, a date anterior to the completion of the assessments on 31st March, 1956. As pointed out by the Privy Council in Commissioner of Income-tax, Bombay and Aden v. Khemchand Ramdas (1938) 2 M.L.J. 115 : L.R. 65 IndAp 236 : I.L.R. (1938) Bom. 487 , the finality of an assessment can be disturbed, only if there is any express provision in the Act itself to re-open what had become a completed and final assessment. Section 19 of the Act provides for cancellation of an assessment in certain cases. Section 31(5)(a)(ii) provides for a fresh assessment, where the original order of assessment passed by the Agricultural Income-tax Officer is set aside on appeal. Section 35 is a provision for assessing the income that had escaped assessment. Section 36 provides for rectification of mistakes in the orders of assessment apparent from the records of assessment. Unless one or the other of these provisions applies, the Agricultural Income-tax Officer can claim no jurisdiction to re-open and revise an assessment that has been completed and has become final.
17. It should, however, be remembered that in this case the Agricultural Income-tax Officer propounded the 'null and void' theory only to sustain the jurisdiction which he claimed under Section 36 of the Act. Whether that jurisdiction could have been assumed and exercised in he circumstances of these cases is the real question for determination.
18. The jurisdiction conferred by Section 36 is to rectify a mistake apparent from the record, in this case, the records of assessments completed on 31st March, 1956. I am not concerned now with the question, whether the assessments could have been revised under Section 35 of the Act. That power was not invoked or exercised by the Agricultural Income-tax Officer. As the learned Counsel for the petitioners pointed out, factually Rule 10 was in force and equally factually it was correctly applied when the assessments were completed on 31st March, 1956. It was not even a case of erroneous decision when it was rendered on 31st March, 1956, that the income which related to the coffee produce of the period anterior to 31st March, 1954, should be excluded from the computation of the total agricultural income of the petitioners in 1954-55, the previous year in relation to the year of assessment 1955-56. It is not necessary to examine in these proceedings whether an erroneous decision would fall within the scope of a 'mistake apparent from the records' within the meaning of Section 36 of the Act.
19. The effect of the notification which repealed with effect from 1st September, 1955 itself Rule 10 was, that there was a change in the law governing the assessment of agricultural income. The change was in the Rules and not in the Act itself. Section 4 which provided for the computation of the total agricultural income, and Section 3, the charging section, both expressly provide that they are subject to the provisions of the Act. The relevant portion of Section 62(3) which is one of the provisions of the Act, directs:
All rules made under this section shall be published in the Fort St. George Gazette and upon such publication shall have effect as if enacted in this Act.
20. The most that could be claimed by the respondent is that the notification, dated 10th August, 1956, brought about a change in the law. Such a change could not convert what was factually correct on 31st March, 1956, a mistake apparent from the record within the meaning of Section 36 of the Act. The principle laid down in Bombay Dyeing and Manufacturing Co. v. M.K. Venkatachalam : 26ITR298(Bom) . should apply.
21. In Bombay Dyeing and Manufacturing Co. v. M.K. Venkatachalam : 26ITR298(Bom) , in which the scope of Section 1(2) of the Indian Income-tax (Amendment) Act, 1953, was considered, the learned Judges laid down:
Section 1(2) of the Indian Income-tax (Amendment) Act, 1953, does not make the Act retrospective to the extent of permitting the Income-tax Officer under Section 35 to re-open an assessment which has been completed.
Section 36 of the Indian Income-tax Act gives power to the Income-tax Officer to rectify any mistake apparent from the record but the error contemplated by that section is not an error which is due to the law being altered subsequent to the date on which the assessment order was made. The test which must be applied for the application of Section 35 is not what the law was at any subsequent time, not what the law was when the Income-tax Officer exercised his powers under Section 35, but what the law was when the order of assessment was made. The error has to be apparent on the face of the order and that error can only be judged in the light of the law as it was at that date.
22. I respectfully agree. That is the test to apply to verify if there was any mistake apparent from the record within the meaning of the analogous statutory provision, Section 36 of the Act. As I said the assessments completed on 31st March, 1956, proceeded on a correct application of Rule 10. That was the law to apply on 31st March, 1956. The subsequent change in the law did not constitute that decision 'a mistake apparent from the record ' within the meaning of Section 36.
23. In Bombay Dyeing and Manufacturing Co. v. M.K. Venkatachalam : 26ITR298(Bom) the learned Judges also explained the scope of the decision of the Privy Council in Commissioner of Income-tax, Bombay and Aden v. Khemchand Ramdas (1938) 2 M.L.J. 115 : L.R. 65 IndAp 236 : I.L.R. (1938) Bom. 487 With those observations again I respectfully agree.
24. I am not deciding in these proceedings whether the income the assessment of which to tax is in dispute, could have been assessed under the Act subsequent to 10th April, 1956. All I need decide in this case is that Section 36, the jurisdiction conferred by which the Agricultural Income-tax Officer purported to exercise did not confer that jurisdiction on him. There was no mistake apparent from the record within the meaning of Section 36 of the Act for the Agricultural Income-tax Officer to rectify.
25. As the orders, dated 31st July, 1956, were wholly without jurisdiction, they have to be set aside by the issue of writs of certiorari.
26. Another of the contentions of the petitioners was, that Section 5(k) of the Act was void under Article 13 of the Constitution, as it offended the guarantees of Article 14 and also Article 19(1)(f) of the Constitution. Had it been necessary to decide that question, I would have referred it to a Division Bench for an answer. It should be remembered that the validity of the orders of assessment, dated 31st March, 1956, was not in issue in these proceedings. The relief asked for by the petitioners, that the orders of the Agricultural Income-tax Officer, dated 31st July, 1956, should be set aside, can be granted without any need to go into the question of the validity of the statutory provision in Section 5(k). I might, however, record that the learned Government Pleader conceded the claim of the petitioners, that the second proviso, to Section 5(A) was not correctly applied by the Agricultural Income-tax Officer. The Agricultural Income-tax Officer was wrong in allowing only 25 per cent. of the assessable agricultural income as a deduction within the scope of Section 5(k). What should have been the basis of computation for relief was the 'agricultural income' as defined by Section 2(a).
27. The rule nisi issued in each of these petitions is made absolute and the petitions are allowed. The orders of the Agricultural Income-tax Officer, dated 31st July, 1956, will stand set aside. No order as to costs.