Hasmukh Adhia, India’s revenue secretary, is finance minister Arun Jaitley’s chief aide for rolling out the Goods and Services Tax. Contrary to his first name, he never smiles, at least not in public. But even he can now take a break and smile. The GST juggernaut is careening ahead. In just over a week, India would have leapfrogged into the league of economies which have walked the talk on rationalising indirect taxes.
So what will Mr Jaitley and the GST Council have achieved on July 1, 2017? First, this collegial team of finance ministers, across the Central and state governments, would have fired the first, potent salvo against black money. Demonetisation; tax raids; getting back overseas black money caches — all pale in significance, compared to the institutional impact of GST. Consider, that the most vocal protests against GST have come from dry fruit traders, cloth merchants and jewellery makers. These businesses have been traditionally cash heavy. Of course, the intrepid evader will still have tax leak holes left open. Agriculture, food items and the business in booze remain yawning gaps in the tax revenue security architecture. But the message is loud and clear: the rope is shortening. So watch out!
Second, the massive discounts being offered on pre-GST clearance of the stock of consumer durables suggests that prices of these goods will reduce. An entity, empowered to investigate and ensure that net tax reduction benefits are passed on by manufacturers and dealers to consumers, is in the offing. The history of such clunky, intrusive executive action is not encouraging. Due to information asymmetry, determining the cost breakdown of products externally, is invariably inefficient. Either the enforcement agents get compromised or they end up harassing manufacturers and suppliers for trifling results.
But in truth, it really doesn’t matter. Inflation levels are at historic lows — below three per cent per annum; the monsoon is progressing well and global demand remains damp. Babus and their counterparts in the public sector — around 18 million households — have all either been given or will soon get pay revisions. They are itching to spend the windfall.
Even if the entire tax rationalisation bonanza is retained by manufacturers and dealers, it will still generate surpluses for private investment — in debt servicing, realty and equity markets. Improving the revenue steam of corporate India is vital for getting over the gargantuan NPA problem, which is bad cholesterol for growth. The good news is that most product markets are competitive. Digital marketers have cut retail margins to the bone. Even the market for services is hyper competitive — think telecom. This makes it tough for corporates to retain extra normal profits.
Also, undeniably, tax rationalisation has come at a cost. The actual transaction cost, for business, to comply with digital GST processes is unknown. But GST provides a huge opportunity to India’s IT developers to innovate low-cost compliance and oversight options — particularly for value segments produced by small and medium industries. These could be perfected at home and marketed worldwide as context-specific solutions for developing countries. In 2013, at a conference in Washington, the World Bank president asked Nandan Nilekani why he wasn’t rolling out Aadhaar across the globe? Mr Nilekani responded that he was too busy at home and had no time left for solving the problems of the world. This single statement projected India’s enormous domestic, digital market potential far better than the glossies, which international consultants and governments routinely produce touting themselves. These digital opportunities have multiplied by several degrees with GST.
Third, the agreed-upon somewhat clunky architecture for GST reflects compromises made to achieve the twin overriding concerns — protecting the poor and ensuring fiscal neutrality for all governments. In the absence of a direct cash transfer framework, continuing tax exemptions on mass consumption goods and services is a reasonable policy option. Given the federal structure and the plurality of our polity, there never was an option to the consensual approach adopted by the GST Council. Meeting the revenue concerns of state governments has inevitably led to six GST rates. The highest rate of 28 per cent is designed to be used for neutralising any revenue loss for state governments.
Multiple rates result in efficiency loss due to tax leakage from misclassification of goods to a lower tax rate. A good example is the amorphous classification of a storage battery as a computer peripheral (lower tax rate) versus use for backup lighting needs (higher tax rate). Multiple rates also increase the accounting load for keeping track of tax credits and debits. But the economic benefits from early implementation of a less than perfect solution far outweigh the opportunity lost from a prolonged wait for the BJP to come to power in all the states, thereby enabling a best practice single rate template to be imposed from above, China style.
Fourth, GST is good for jobs. It gives a boost to “Make in India” by withdrawing the tax advantage for imported manufacturers. Importers pay Central state tax at four per cent as special additional customs duty. But domestic products are taxed at the rates of state sales tax, which are generally higher. This disadvantage for domestic production will vanish with GST. Imports, in addition to customs duty, will pay additional customs duty at the GST rate applicable for domestic products.
Finally, the finance minister has consistently adopted a firm but nuanced, practical stance on the implementation schedule. Recognising that small-scale industry and traders are lagging in preparations, he has agreed to defer the filing of returns by two months. Assurances have also been given that the GST rates could be adjusted if the net tax burden gets distorted or gets unbearable. A government that is open to negotiating beneficial outcomes for all stakeholders and still retains the will to keep the national interest foremost is quite clearly operating at the tax-related good governance frontier. Smile, please.