Customs duty on books only adds to students’ financial burdens while killing reading cultureWhile publishers and book enthusiasts say the customs duty is unnecessary, others say it could benefit the Nepali publishing industry
A few days ago, Krishal Maharjan started his A-levels at Little Angels School in Hattiban. Although his school’s semester has already begun, he still hasn’t received his course books. And now that a new tax provision for books has been introduced, his books, already expensive, will cost even more.
The budget announcement for the upcoming 2019-2020 fiscal year has mandated a 10 percent customs duty on all imported books. Previously, there was never a tax on the import of books, especially schoolbooks, as mandated by UNESCO’s Florence agreement, which prohibits customs duties on the import of books and publications that can be classified as educational, scientific and cultural. As a signatory, Nepal’s new tax provision contradicts that agreement, affecting thousands of school and college going students.
“The cost of studying A-levels is already high and so is the price of the textbooks. The customs duty will only add an economic strain on students,” said Maharjan.
Shishir Ghimire, director of the department of customs, under the Ministry of Finance, said that the tax will only apply on books published in foreign countries.
“If there is a tax on raw materials like paper for publishing in Nepal, there should be a tax on finished goods—books,” said Ghimire.
When asked about the UNESCO agreement, he did not give a definite answer.
However, many students believe that the customs duty should not apply to textbooks as educational material should be affordable.
“The increase in the prices of books is certain to have a negative impact,” said Sonia Timalsina, a student at Kathmandu University. "If books aren’t made easily accessible and affordable for students, it will be tough for us to refer to reading materials."
Many high school and college students already purchase second-hand books for their courses, since new books are often prohibitively expensive. But this year, changes in some of the A-levels syllabus means that students can’t even use second-hand books anymore. This leaves students with no option but to buy new books at increased prices, says Maharjan.
Publishers and reading enthusiasts are also afraid that the customs duty will only serve to dissuade a burgeoning reading culture among young people.
“Books are a source of knowledge and shouldn’t be taxed in the way the government is trying to,” said Ajit Baral of Fine Print, a publication house that also conducts the annual Nepal Literature Festival.
For Abinash Baral, organiser of ‘What the Book’, a book club, the costs of reading are already high for young people, who have limited sources of funds. The 30 or 40 participants in his book club, which holds monthly meetings, find it difficult to buy books, most of which are already expensive.
“A reading culture was finally emerging, but readers will be more hesitant after the increase in prices,” he said.
With libraries few and far in between, most people purchase books to read, or use other, less ethical, means.
According to Likhat Prasad Pandey, president of the National Booksellers' & Publishers' Association of Nepal (NBPAN), the increased cost of books could force people towards piracy.
In a protest against the customs duty on all types of books, including schoolbooks, NBPAN has decided to halt all book imports for the time being.
This is not the first time that the government has attempted to place a tax on books, said Baral of Fine Print. In the past, publishers and booksellers would lobby the government but this time, few knew of the provision beforehand.
“We found out only when a transportation company informed some publishers and booksellers about the impending price change in the invoices for future shipments,” said Baral.
This happened just a few days before the budget speech, and by then, it was too late for a lobby.
However, there are some who believe that the customs duty could ultimately be a good thing, promoting Nepali publishers and publications over ones imported from abroad. Currently, a majority of Nepali publication houses print their books in India. This tariff could now encourage them to print and publish in Nepal itself.
“People tend to be inclined towards foreign book because we do not trust Nepali publications,” said Deepika Kattel, a student at Islington College. “However, both books published within and outside Nepal have similar quality.”
Timalsina, who is a law student, believes that textbooks that are published in Nepal could benefit students, as they’re more likely to provide local contexts for their subjects.
“Foreign publications do not provide comprehensive details as to why some laws in Nepal were implemented,” said Timalsina. "The history of Nepali law is missing."
Such a tariff could encourage Nepali writers to write more textbooks, she said.
But not everyone is convinced that Nepali publications or writers have the wherewithal to compete with foreign publications.
“The higher quality of books from aboard is what students prefer compared to ones produced within the country,” said Baburam Gautam, managing director of Heritage Publishers and Distributors. “Students studying medical and engineering are most likely to be affected.”
Madhab Maharjan of Mandala Books, also believes that Nepal is not in a position to publish books required for high school or college-level curriculum. Most of these books currently come from India, where a lot of UK and US publishers are housed. This makes it possible for Nepali students to purchase books published in India at reduced costs, he said. But now, the new tariff threatens to add more costs.
“Students at the university level have to buy dozens of books so the 10 percent import duty on books will definitely have multiple effects on them,” said Maharjan.