Measured against its stated objectives, the introduction of GST is a partial success. It succeeds in creating a unified market and increasing compliance, thereby boosting government revenues, and partially establishes a level playing field between different kinds of firms. However, GST in its current form fails to harmonise tax rates across products or enhance ease of doing business significantly.
Limited coverage: GST’s coverage of taxes to be subsumed is only 54%. The exclusion of potable alcohol is due to a constitutional constraint and doesn’t break the credit chain. However, the exclusion of petroleum products and electricity are particularly problematic. Diesel accounted for 12% of total indirect tax collections. On an average, indirect taxes paid on diesel account for c30% of logistics cost, for which no credit will be available to the consumer. The resulting cascading is significant in case of basic food items and most dry bulk commodities. For example, taxes paid on diesel account for roughly 5-6% of the retail price for cement, over and above the GST paid, and taxes on diesel could be up to 10% of price of certain vegetables. The government has indicated that petroleum products will also come under the ambit of GST soon — we are sceptical.
Single market: In the earlier system, tax on an item was a function of where it is sold as well as where it is produced. This obviously was a major hindrance to free movement of goods across the country. GST succeeds in creating a single market across the nation — i.e., the tax on a particular product would be the same across the country. However, GST fails to harmonise tax rates across products and services, and inherits the problem of multiple and rather confusing tax rates. While some divergence is a political necessity, the final list of tax rates seems to be a result of preference for expedience over efficiency. We fear the multiplicity of rates vastly reduces the possible efficiency gains that could have come about and will result in lobbying, avoidance as well as harassment.
Higher compliance and government revenues: GST, despite its shortfalls, is designed to rapidly increase compliance. The architecture ensures constant and seamless exchange of information between various tax departments. It is no longer possible to be compliant to one department and not with another, or be compliant in one state and not in another. GST network would be able to calculate the user’s gross profit that can and will be shared with the income tax department. The need to match tax credits on an invoice level defeats the possibility of fraudulent tax credits and back-dating of invoices. Tax liabilities would be far easier to calculate. For companies already compliant, there would be some transition issues limited to a few weeks but the transition to GST would be quite painful for non-compliant companies and companies with poor accounting practices.