Will India’s proposed GST work?

Author: Sacchidananda Mukherjee, NIPFP

India is moving towards introducing a Goods and Services Tax (GST). The GST would be a multistage comprehensive value added tax (VAT) encompassing both goods and services. Given the federal structure of India and the fact that taxation powers have been constitutionally assigned to different governments, the introduction of a GST would be a major indirect tax reform since independence. Both the federal and state governments will have concurrent taxation rights at every stage of production and distribution.

 In this file photograph taken on August 23, 2013, an Indian money changer shows new Indian rupee currency notes to a customer while sitting on the side of a road in Kolkata. (Photo: AAP)

India’s present sales tax system can be best described as an origin-based tax system where the manufacturing state collects Central Sales Tax (CST) on goods being sold interstate. CST remains a stranded cost for interstate importers. There is no harmonisation in tax rules, rates and regulations across states, resulting in substantial transaction costs for businesses. It is expected that the introduction of a GST will remove these structural rigidities and provide a common market for goods and services.

A GST would be an improvement as it would reduce cascading of taxes — that is, tax being applied on top of other taxes at every stage of the production process — and transaction costs associated with interstate sales of goods. This could facilitate achieving a seamless common market. As a result, a GST would enhance economic growth by attracting investment and releasing working capital.

It is also expected that seamless access to markets across Indian states will facilitate more efficient production and distribution systems. This could also minimise costs, attracting larger investment. The Indian government expects that the introduction of a GST will improve India’s ranking in the World Bank’s ease of doing business index.

One major fiscal motive behind the introduction of a GST could be to expand government revenue, given rising demands for public expenditure and revenue constraints. Amending the constitution to remove definitional differences between goods and services, as well as those between manufacturing and distribution of goods, will grant concurrent taxation powers to the federal government and the states on the consumption of goods and services. Joint monitoring of the same taxpayers should also result in better tax compliance, minimise revenue leakage and improve tax coordination between federal and state tax administrators.

There are several challenges if a GST is introduced, which can be classified under two broad headings: design and structural issues, and administration and institutional issues. On the design, the decision to exclude major fossil fuels (petrol/ gasoline, diesel, ATF, natural gas and crude petroleum) and electricity from the GST will mean that there will still be substantial cascading of taxes. This will jeopardise the scope for improving the competitiveness of domestic industries in the international market.

On administration, if the GST is administered separately by the federal and state tax administrators, taxpayers who previously faced a single tax administration (for example retailers or service providers) will instead face two tax administrations. Complying with different tax authorities for a single transaction could enhance compliance costs, which could work against voluntary compliance. One possible option could be to establish joint tax administration for many functions

The present proposal to levy one per cent additional origin based tax on interstate sales for initial two years dilutes the objective of achieving a seamless common market. The design of an Integrated GST system (for interstate sales), the possibility of multiple tax schedules, variations in tax rates, thresholds and a list of exempted goods across states will determine the compliance burden and therefore the possibility of a common market.

The scope to expand the tax base through a GST is limited as most economic activities are already taxed by the federal and/or state governments. There is not much scope for further expanding of the tax base by bringing more goods and services under the purview of GST, unless the number of goods and services under the exemption list are reduced. But no consensus on exemptions has been reached among the concerned governments yet.

Given India’s large informal sector that escapes taxable transactions, the opportunity cost of being under the tax system cannot always outweigh the benefits. The presence of informal credit and labour markets, as well as a large domestic demand for locally produced goods and services, often leads to unaccounted-for incomes that avoid taxation. Since the new tax regime is expected to work through more integrated and redefined supply chains, for the regime to be beneficial and successful, it is important that more and more enterprises find it useful to be a part of the GST regime.

By excluding goods that are important to maintain government revenue — like petroleum products and alcohol — from the GST system, governments protect their respective fiscal autonomy. But this implies the cascading of taxes will continue and hampers the export competitiveness of domestic industries. Cascading of taxes generates revenue for government, although it goes against the interests of business. Removal of tax cascading has key revenue implications for government and it will affect different governments differently depending on the importance of taxes subsumed under the proposed GST to their revenue.

A more harmonised taxation system, like a GST, restricts the freedom of individual governments to deviate from a common tax structure. Given the federal structure of India, harmonisation of tax rules and regulations is more important than harmonisation of tax rates from a business perspective.

If international experience is anything to go by, it is unlikely that a faultless GST will be designed and rolled out in India as a single event. But some structural faults could easily be addressed and rectified. Given the diversity involved in design and administration, an Indian GST will be unique. How successful it is in terms of compliance and revenue mobilisation will largely depend on the provision of incentives for tax invoice based transactions and the simplification of tax administration.

Sacchidananda Mukherjee is an associate professor at the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy (NIPFP), New Delhi.

This article is based on a paper originally presented at the Tax and Transfer Policy Institute at the Crawford School of Public Policy, the Australian National University on 25 September 2015.

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