India’s most disruptive and transformative tax reform since independence, which promises to make Bharat, a ‘one tax, one market, one nation’, has finally seen the light of the day, after a controversy ridden midnight session to roll it out. An effort to have a uniform tax law in 29 states and 11 union territories and to abolish/subsume numerous decades old laws therein, is a gigantic task indeed. The enormity is best displayed by the fact that India generates over 350 crores invoices each year, which will now be the subject matter of GST uniformity of rates, legislation and regulation. It has dawned after over fifteen years of the GST law in the making, by build up of consensus among disparate political parties and diverse sections of society. Stitching together a diverse polity from Mumbai to Manipur and Leh to Laksadweep is not an easy task, particularly where these regions have been administering their own tax laws since decades. While the start of the effort may have been seeded in contentious and fractious politics, the end was not, as is evident from the eighteen meetings of the national GST Council, where every decision was driven by consensus and needed no voting thereon. While the government has sought to enact a simple law and the devil may not be in the details, but it certainly will be in its implementation and the transitory phase. But the transition phase of emerging from one law into another, ushers in a huge change and is bound to be painful. The government focus should be to reduce this period of painful transition to the minimum and to mitigate the losses/hardship of the small entrepreneur, who are the most ill equipped to implement the change and have the most to lose. The GST law will certainly reduce the ‘cash/black’ sector of our economy, which chooses to operate below the radar and evades an entire range of taxes, both direct and indirect. It will reduce the pain of compliance with multiple tax laws in numerous states and ensure a pan India seamless movement of goods. The GDP is bound to go up, due to the removal of irritants/barriers to trade. But that would be visible only about two years from now. Till then the country needs to bear and endure the pangs of transition, particularly mindful and sensitive to the hardship to the small entrepreneur.
With the politically sensitive Gujarat elections looming on the horizon and the detractors like Yeshwant Sinha giving ammo to the Opposition to target the government, in the wake of a fall in the GDP growth, in addition to the PM’s aggressive defence of his performance on the economic front, it was imperative to modify the GST, to set right the glitches and errors visible due to the hundred days of its implementation. It was time to recognise the ground level experience of three months of GST, which revealed its errors and pain points. These included a need to rationalise the GST rates and the apparent inconsistencies therein, to reduce the burden of compliance on the small enterprises, to bail out exporters whose massive refunds were stuck in the system, to grant input credit to the manufacturers and to dispel the lingering fear of opening of past records, in the case of those who joined the tax regime for the first time. In a timely move the national GST Council in its twenty second meeting has recognised these difficulties and in order to provide immediate interim relief, has modified the GST regulations, It however cannot be denied that the changes reflect the ruling party’s anxiety over the forthcoming Gujarat elections, having provided relief to the textile, jewellery and food items segment, the mainstays of the Gujarat society/economy. In a much needed relief, the small businessmen who were facing problems in filing monthly GST returns, have now been permitted to do so on a quarterly basis. The threshold of the composition scheme which gives relief to the small tax payers, has been increased from Rs.75 lacs to Rs.1 crore and the reverse charge mechanism has been deferred till March 31, 2018. The massive pending tax refunds of the exporters, which had blocked thousands of crores and was obstructing their business, will be cleared in the next two weeks. A marginal GST of 0.10% will be levied on merchant exporters until March 31, 2018 and will be reviewed thereafter. In order to mitigate the blocking of funds of exporters, an E wallet facility will be available to them from April 1, 2018. While the GST rates have been reduced on 27 items, yet in order to avoid any adhoc changes in the GST rates, it has been decided to set up a committee to frame the principles to reduce rates, depending upon the emerging GST patterns. The changes in the GST are welcome and are expected to set a trend of such amendments, based on the overall picture of GST and its administration/compliance that will emerge in the coming years. The difficulties that a producer/consumer may face due to any irrationalities in the law must be removed at the earliest. Moreover the transition pain caused by the onset of the GST too will be mitigated if the changes are timely and rational, without the temptation of any political agenda therein.
Income Tax Disputes
Income tax disputes have been rising in India, year after year. The CBDT, India’s apex tax authority, notes with concern, that over Rs. 6 lakh crores of tax, is stuck in dispute, at various stages of appeal, involving 3 lakh cases. While the likes of Vodafone and Cairn Energy, victims of retro tax terrorism, are the high profile cases of tax disputes, it is not that only the big corporates are embroiled in tax disputes. Almost 67% of tax disputes involve tax demands of less than Rs.10 lakhs, indicating that the scourge of tax feuds is rampant and pervades the entire system. While the complicated/byzantine tax laws are fertile grounds for controversies, they are further aggravated by pro revenue tax officers, always eager to interpret the laws in the manner that favours the Revenue. The tax officers prefer to err on the side of caution and do not hesitate to create unjustified tax demands on the tax payers, compelling them to seek redressal in appeals. The fact that an overwhelming majority of such cases are decided in favour of the tax payer and against the Revenue, has not been a deterrent to the prejudiced tax officers. There is also no review process in the system to reprimand/warn those tax officers who created frivolous tax disputes on the hapless tax payer, subjecting him to extreme stress and harassment, as also expensive litigation to protect his basic rights. If the CBDT is worried about the rising tax disputes, then its resolution lies in ensuring that tax payers are given reliefs which they are entitled to and that those officers who deny such entitled relief to the tax payers and cause them agony are reprimanded. Arbitrary interpretations, which are outright rejected by courts must not be permitted. Apart from the harassment caused, they also disillusion even an honest/law abiding tax payer. Bonafide claims/conduct must be differentiated from the malafide ones. The latter must be subject to harsh penalty and prosecution, but certainly not the former. The emerging trend in tax administration, of punishing tax payers (whether bonafide or malafide) with the same stick, is bound to breed further corruption and resentment among the tax payers. If the CBDT is seriously worried about the huge tax demands in dispute, it must conduct a fair review, mindful of the fact that the Tax Department loses a majority of its cases and must offer a fair settlement, outside the unending judicial process.
INTEREST RATES- A CUT IMMINENT
Inflation in India has hit its lowest level in recent decades. At 1/54% in June, primarily due to a dip in prices of food and dairy products, it is at its lowest level since 1999. That is certainly good news for the consumer at the ground level. With the inflation beast tamed, the government now needs to focus on triggering the stagnant private sector investment, to push India’s growth. Simple economics says that if money is cheap ie. the interest rates are low, then corporates are willing to borrow and invest in new projects. The cost of funds is certainly a key determinant of the demand for loans. With fresh bank loan sanctions at a 60 year low and new private sector investment at a 25 year low, India needs to bring down its interest rates, which are unattractive to borrowers. In today’s extremely competitive times, when profits are not easy to earn, the present average interest rate of 11% is not quite attractive. High interest rates means few borrowers for banks, which impacts their profits by compelling them to park their funds in low interest government bonds. The inflation focused RBI on its part has been reluctant to bring down interest rates, since that fuels inflation. The government and the RBI are thus on the opposite sides of the table in the matter of interest rates. While the government wants low interest rates, so that the GDP growth surges, the RBI is reluctant to do so, since low interest rates spur inflation. With the record low inflation in June, the government CEA has already built pressure on the RBI, saying that it cannot miss a growth opportunity in such times ie. it must prune interest rates. Monetary policy, which includes the fixation of interest rates, is under the sole control of the RBI. The government has little say in it and can only plead. The RBI must maintain its autonomy, must not be pressurised by the government and must take a considered decision. While the RBI is yet to give any indication of its forthcoming policy stance on interest rates, a marginal cut of 25 basis points looks imminent. A higher interest rate cut in the immediate future is unlikely, since the RBI forecasts that inflation is bound to raise its ugly head in the second half of FY 2017/18 and will thus prefer caution in the matter. A rate cut would mean further cheer in India’s booming stock markets.