STATE OF WEST BENGAL V. WASHI AHMED
BRIEF OF THE CASE
Green ginger came up for decision before the SC in the case of State of West Bengal v. Washi Ahmed. Section 6(1) of the Bengal Finance (Sales Tax) Act,1941, exempts from tax liability “vegetables, green or dried commonly known as subji, tarkari or sak” when not sold in sealed containers. The Sales Tax Authorities levied sales tax on “green ginger” sold by the respondents, taking the view that inasmuch as green ginger is used to add flavour and taste to food. It is not “vegetable commonly known as subji, tarkari or sak”. A writ petition challenging the validity of the orders of assessment was allowed by the Calcutta High Court which held that green ginger is vegetable within the meaning of that expression as used in Item 6 of the First Schedule to the Bengal Finance (Sales Tax) Act,1941.
THE ISSUE RAISED
Whether Green ginger is a vegetable?
The Sales Tax Authorities levied sales tax on “green ginger” sold by the respondents, taking the view that green ginger is used to add flavour and taste to food. In a case under the Bengal Finance Sales Tax Act, the issue was whether green ginger was to be regarded as a vegetable as obtained in the description vegetable, green or dried, commonly known as sabzi, tarkari or sak in item 6 of Schedule 1. If it was treated so, it would be exempt from sales tax.
The decision of P.N. Bhagwati, J, held that there is no doubt that green ginger is generally regarded as included within the meaning of the word “vegetables” as understood in common parlance by the common man. The SC relied on the fact that in common parlance green ginger was known as a vegetable. It was grown in the kitchen garden or in a farm and was used for the table. It did not accept the view of the Sales Tax Tribunal that it was a flavour. Green ginger is included. within the meaning of the words “vegetables commonly known as subji, tarkari- or sak.” The court observed that ginger is an item ordinarily sold by the vegetable vendor and both the vegetable vendor who everyday deals in vegetables and unhesitatingly regard green ginger as a vegetable.
SIMILAR CASES REFERRED FOR DECISION
The act of sale of vegetable does not attract sales tax. Therefore, when an assistant sales tax officer wanted to tax the sale of betel leaf, a vendor objected on the ground that betel leaf was a vegetable. He claimed exemption. This refers to the case of Ramavatar Budhiprashad v. Assistant Sales Tax Officer which has become a landmark judgement by the SC. The SC did not accept the scientific or dictionary meaning of the word vegetable and observed that it must be construed not in any technical sense nor from a botanical point of view, but as understood in common parlance. It held: It has not been defined in the Act and being a word of everyday use it must be construed in its popular sense, meaning that sense which people conversant with the subject matter with which the statute is dealing would attribute to it. It is to be understood as understood in common language. In this view, betel leaf was not a vegetable but a condiment. Not being a vegetable, it could not enjoy exemption from sales tax.
Coconut was the subject matter of the SCs decision in the case of P A Thillai Chidambar Nair vs State of Tamil Nadu. In this case under the Tamil Nadu General Sales Tax Act, 1959, the question was whether a coconut (neither tender nor dried, but a ripened one with or without husk) could be exempted from sales tax. Justice V D Tulzapurkar and Justice Ranganath Misra held that it was well-known that the kernel of the coconut was used as an ingredient for enhancing the taste of food, but was hardly used as a substantial article of food on the table. On this ground, they held that it was not a vegetable.
Chilly and lemon were the subject matter of a decision by the SC in the case of Mangulu Sahu Ramahari Sahu vs Sales Tax Officer, Ganjam, Orissa. In this case, under the Orissa Sales Tax Act, 1947 the question was whether chillies and lemons were vegetables. The HC had held that they were not vegetables. It had gone on the basis that before an item could be considered a vegetable, it had to be a principal item of food. It also considered the botanical meaning of the word. The SC observed that technical or botanical meanings should not be considered for tax purposes. So while the HC said they were not vegetables, the SC said they were.
From the above judgements we find that while the principle of market parlance has been uniformly adopted, the market definition of vegetable has not been uniformly accepted. While applying the definition, there has been some difference of opinion. In the case of coconut, the definition of vegetable that has been accepted is that it has to be a main item of cooking. But that does not seem to have been the criterion in the case of ginger, chilly and lemon. After all ginger, chilly and lemon are also not main items and are used to enhance the taste of cooked food. This can be true of coconut also. But it has been adjudged otherwise.
We all eat vegetables but if we are asked to define them, we may not be on very firm ground. It is one of those concepts not amenable to easy definition. Had it not been so, it would not have been the subject matter of several cases in high courts and the Supreme Court. To begin with, we may ask ourselves why we should try to define the word vegetable. The simple reason is that there are exemptions in the fiscal laws in favour of vegetables.
If a statute contains language which is capable of being construed in a popular sense, such a statute is not to be construed according to the strict or technical meaning of the language contained in it, but it is to be construed in its popular sense, the sense which people conversant with the subject matter would attribute to it.
Thus, the court correctly deliberated on the green ginger case and wherein it said that it may not be used as a principal item of the meal, however, it definitely forms part of the meal as a subsidiary item. Green ginger is usually considered as included within the meaning of the word “vegetable” as understood in common expression. The literal rule was applied and words were given a popular sense of meaning and court was justified in doing so as the Act did not define the word ‘vegetable’ and was a word of everyday use. The court gave Act popular sense meaning which people are conversant with the subject matter and which the statute is dealing would attribute to it and so construed it denotes those classes of vegetables which are grown in the kitchen garden or grown in farm and used for the table.
The literal rule of interpretation is the primary rule. Under this rule of interpretation, the Courts interpret the statutes in a literal and standard sense. They interpret the words of the statute in a way that is used ordinarily by all. It is incumbent on the court to use the grammatical meaning. If the interpretation is open to different meanings in one context it is ambiguous but if it is susceptible to different meaning in different contexts it is plain. The statutes should be construed in such a way as if there’s no different meaning except the literal meaning. This rule has its merits and defects and it is an aid to interpretation of statutes in conjunction with other rules of interpretation.
 AIR 1977 SC 1638
 AIR 1961 SC 1325
 AIR 1985 SC 1644
 AIR 1974 SC 390
 Grenfell v. I. R. C., (1876) 1 Ex. D. 242 at 248
Author: Akanksha Anand,
Vivekananda Institute of Professional Studies, 4th year/ Student