The Goods and Services Tax (GST), which took over 10 years to be conceived and take birth, is now a little more than 100 days old. Right from the beginning, there was a realisation that our version of GST is far from perfect. However, both industry and the government felt that we should not let the ‘better be the enemy of good’. Also, political realities meant that we had to accommodate views of all states and the Centre to formulate the GST framework, which combines more than 25 different taxes into one national tax. Multiple slabs of GST rates also reflected the political/social realities and carried the baggage of the ad hoc tax policies of the past several decades.
In the initial month or so, GST rollout was smoother than many had expected. Industry supported it, consumers were confident that it would lead to lower prices and the government was expecting buoyancy in revenue collections.
However, after the initial euphoria was over, the voice of protests started coming in gradually. While there is a general consensus that GST is a positive structural reform, which will be beneficial in the long run, questions are being raised on the manner in which it was implemented.
Did India rush into its introduction? Was GSTN ready? Was the estimate of the readiness of SMEs incorrect? Why weren’t the issues exporters would face not considered?
There are no easy answers here. In hindsight, several things could have been done better. However, such a huge tax reform, in a country of 1.2 billion people, could not have been hassle-free. To my mind, the more pertinent question is as to whether we are able to recognise the shortcomings/issues and are willing to take remedial action. The answer to this question is surely a resounding “Yes”.
The GST Council, a body comprising of all states (represented by almost all political parties), has been quite impressive in its functioning. It must be unprecedented that this kind of a body, where all the members have a vote, has taken all decisions with consensus so far.
SMEs were not ready on time for GST, partly because many of them thought that GST would be deferred further and partly because the government did not have enough time for the ‘public outreach’. Also, few legislative provisions, such as the requirement of ‘reverse charge’ payment of tax on purchases from unregistered vendors, added to the complexity further.
The Council has been quick to address few of their concerns. In the last meeting, it was decided to increase in threshold for small businesses opting for Composition Scheme from Rs 75 lakh to Rs 1 crore. This is significant because those opting for this scheme only have to pay tax of 1% or 2% on the entire turnover, without too much paperwork, and are required to pay tax/file returns on a quarterly basis. This window is open till March 2018, and the Council has indicated that this scheme may be further liberalised in next few months. In addition to this, the facility of filing quarterly returns has been extended to all small businesses (upto Rs 1.5 crore of annual turnover). The requirement of paying GST by purchasers in case of purchase from small, unregistered vendor(s) has also been dispensed with, at least for the next few months.
Given the glitches experienced with respect to GSTN and the readiness of industry, a decision was also taken to defer the filing of detailed return for July, to October instead of the original August deadline. Further, an inter-ministerial committee was set up to monitor these challenges and come up with timely resolution.
The other big challenge pertains to exports, wherein GST was charged on purchases with a provision for refund later. This led to working capital getting blocked and thus increased the cost of exports. The GST Council has now decided to provide upfront exemption on payment of GST on imports to exporters till the time an alternate mechanism is worked out. Not only does it provide a huge relief to exporters, it is also a significant policy shift for the Council as the design of GST envisages tax payment at each stage and subsequent refund on exports. The Council also approved a new and interesting mechanism—an e-wallet for exporters, wherein a notional amount would be given as an advance refund, as virtual money. The amount can then be used to pay GST on imports and possibly on domestic purchases. The scheme, which is intended to be operationalised by April 1, 2018, also shows that the Council would not shy away from considering innovative solutions to resolve industry’s concerns, if needed.
Frequent changes in tax rates are not desirable in a stable, simple and transparent tax regime. However, it was clear that there were few shortcomings in working out the rates for few products and services. Also, a high rate of GST led to wide spread protest in few cases. The Council thus approved tweaking of rates in many cases. While this meant increase in effective taxes on tobacco and luxury cars, taxes on textile, stationary, tractor parts and various food items were reduced. The idea of coming out with a ‘concept paper’ to decide the changes of tax rates in future is also good, and the Council needs to be complemented for that as well.
While making these concessions, the GST Council has also been firm in cases where there were sharper practices noticed to avoid tax. One such example was in cases of food items, where few companies tried to deregister their brand or thought of such other ‘innovative’ ideas to avoid the 5% GST. The Council was quick to plug this loophole by making appropriate legislative changes. The message is clear that the business need to appreciate the risks associated with tax evasion and give due importance of organising themselves in a new compliance environment.
Therefore, while we are far from an ideal system, the experience of last three months fuels continued optimism that the direction of India’s GST journey is right.