GST has helped in adding 3.4 million new indirect taxpayers, according to Economic Survey of FY18 and has helped in formalizing the economy. (Pradeep Gaur/Mint)
GST has helped in adding 3.4 million new indirect taxpayers, according to Economic Survey of FY18 and has helped in formalizing the economy. (Pradeep Gaur/Mint)

Simplicity, uniformity take a back seat amid frequent tweaks in GST

  • Changes imply policymakers are struggling to make reform acceptable to a large number of small taxpayers
  • The GST Council on 10 Jan meeting decided to let states choose between two possible criteria— 20 lakh or 40 lakh annual sales—for businesses to get GST registration

NEW DELHI : While rolling out the goods and service tax (GST) from the central hall of Parliament at midnight of 30 June 2017, Prime Minister Narendra Modi told the nation that the new indirect tax system will unify its divergent state economies with ‘one nation, one tax’ right from Leh to Lakshadweep. About 18 months later, the biggest tax reform since India’s independence is still in a fluid state of continuous change as businesses, especially the small ones, struggle to cope with the rigours of a technology-driven and transparent tax system that has cast its net far and wide to bring at least 3.4 million new indirect taxpayers. Some of the concessions to small businesses announced earlier this month by federal indirect tax body, the GST Council, ahead of parliamentary polls due by April-May, raise fears about sacrificing some of the basic design advantages of GST over the previous regime—simplicity and uniformity. The changes imply that policymakers are still struggling to make the reform acceptable to a large number of small taxpayers without a backlash in a market where the culture of tax evasion is rampant.

GST registration

The GST Council at its last meeting on 10 January decided to let states choose between two possible criteria— 20 lakh or 40 lakh annual sales—for businesses to get GST registration as it could not arrive at a consensus on doubling the current threshold level to 40 lakh for all. This brings back divergent tax base for states, somewhat similar to what existed in the pre-GST era where small businesses with sales ranging from 5 lakh to 40 lakh needed registration for value added tax (VAT) depending on the state.

“Having two state-specific turnover threshold limits can shake the foundations of GST. One can only hope that local businesses will put pressure on those states that refuse to raise the threshold, to eventually raise it to 40 lakh and bring it at par with the other states," said a member of the Council, who asked not to be named.

The states are currently in the process of taking a call on the threshold that suits their local economy. Kerala, which is recovering from the worst floods in a century that submerged large parts of the state last year, will opt to retain 20 lakh annual sales threshold for GST registration, while Delhi, Jammu and Kashmir, and Assam have opted for 40 lakh. Another member of the Council, however, said concessions aimed at giving compliance relief to small businesses were a necessity. “Even in most advanced countries, it took two-three years for GST to stabilize. India is far more diverse. Besides, in election time, we have to be sensitive to the aspirations of people," said the person, who also spoke on condition of anonymity.

“When there are different legal provisions in different states, uniformity takes a hit which is a step backwards," said R. Muralidharan, senior director at Deloitte India. This could also encourage some units to move to other states for staying out of tax net, the kind of distortions India tried to address with the tax reform.

(Naveen Kumar Saini/Mint)


Return of the cess

In the first case of introducing a state-specific cess to mobilize funds for reconstruction after a calamity, the Council allowed Kerala to levy a 1% additional tax on supplies within the state. Considering floods, cyclones, landslides and draught that occur in different parts of the country from time to time, this could set a precedent for other states to go for similar levies in addition to GST with the permission of the Council. “Though the cess is for a noble cause and for a limited period of up to two years in the case of Kerala, it dilutes the concept of ‘one nation, one tax’. Businesses have to make changes in their IT systems and in invoicing," said Abhishek Jain, tax partner, EY India. These changes follow either suspension or dilution of some of GST’s anti-evasion features that businesses claimed were onerous. These include a provision for matching the invoices of suppliers and buyers and making large businesses responsible for collecting and paying taxes on behalf of unregistered vendors. Besides, those entities that sign up for a concessional flat tax scheme called composition scheme can now file annual tax return while paying taxes on a quarterly basis.

Reform goals achieved

GST has, however, helped in adding 3.4 million new indirect taxpayers, according to Economic Survey of FY18 and has helped in formalizing the economy. It has also improved transparency in the tax system and reduced the tax incidence on a host of products and services. This, despite the fact that the administration is not on a tax enforcement drive. The number of items in the highest slab of 28% has also been brought down. The Council is now working on using data from radio frequency identification tags attached to vehicles to verify whether e-way bills or electronic permits issued for goods shipment are misused. The idea is to collect data passively to check tax evasion and boost revenue receipts. GST could see further changes with the opposition Congress party making it an election issue, arguing a revamp is needed.

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