The Lok Sabha on Wednesday passed four Goods and Services Tax (GST) Bills, keeping the recent brisk momentum in the journey towards the proposed one-nation-one-tax regime that would militate against cascading of taxes and give an impetus to economic growth. Replying to the debate on the Bill, finance minister Arun Jaitley stated that in the very first year of GST, the inclusion of real estate under GST would be considered. He also hinted at bringing petroleum products (which are not constitutionally excluded) under the GST regime without much delay. “Slowly, (many) items which are currently kept out will be brought under GST,” the minister said. Chief economic adviser Arvind Subramanian had earlier pitched for inclusion of real estate in the GST regime in the interest of a broad base for the tax.
Earlier, before members from across the political spectrum debated the Bills — which together have 239 clauses — Jaitley had assured the House that the proposed tax wouldn’t be inflationary. While most items won’t see any rate shock — the items will move to the GST slab nearest to the current rates — among the items currently exempt (half the total), most would be kept outside the GST ambit also. Since the four Bills — Central GST, Integrated GST, UT-GST and Compensation to States — have been passed as money Bills, the Rajya Sabha cannot stand in the way of their passage. The state assemblies are now expected to pass their respective state GST Bills which are more or less a replica of the C-GST Bill. The Centre is firm on rolling out GST, which would subsume excise duty, state VAT (including their counterparts on imports) and service tax along with sundry other local levies including purchase tax, from July 1.
The GST Constitutional Amendment Bill — which was essentially meant to enable the Centre to tax goods beyond the factory gate and the states to tax services — was approved by Parliament (with Rajya Sabha assent) in August last year. According to Jaitley, the GST Council’s constitutional mandate to recommend the tax laws and rates won’t infringe upon the plenary powers of Parliament and state assemblies to legislate. The cesses for compensating the states in the initial five years would also ultimately be subsumed in GST, the minister said, justifying use of cess proceeds for this purpose on the ground that mobilising the funds via higher GST rates could have been more onerous on the taxpayers given the tax devolution formula between the Centre and states.
Earlier, while speaking on the Bills, some opposition members were critical of the compromises made in the structure of the proposed destination based tax on consumption. While the multiple-rate structure (along with many exemptions) was one problem they highlighted, they noted that the tax base would also be suboptimal as many important items including petroleum products are kept out of the GST, at least for now. Attempting to score a political point, Congress party leader Veerappa Moily said India lost a whopping Rs 12 lakh crore due to years of delay in implementation of the GST due to the stiff opposition by the BJP when the UPA government was in power.
What the NDA government has brought about in the name of a “revolutionary tax reform is not a game changer but only a baby step”, he said, adding that GST in the form proposed in the Bills would be a “technological nightmare” and the anti-profiteering provisions are “far too draconian” (on the industry). Moily’s concern over the anti-profiteering provision — which is meant to ensure that the benefit of low tax liability in GST regime is passed on to the consumers — was echoed by many other members. The Bills were earlier slotted to be discussed in the House for close to seven hours. Jaitley said the anti-profiteering provision should have been uniformly welcomed by all members as it was meant to scupper excessive profits and unfair enrichment.
The GST Council has already approved four-tier tax slabs of 5%, 12%, 18% and 28% plus additional cesses on demerit goods like luxury cars, aerated drinks and tobacco products. The work on putting various goods and services in the different slabs is slated to begin next month. The Compensation Law provides for levy of cess on top of the peak rate of approved tax (28%) on paan masala, tobacco, aerated waters, luxury cars and coal to create a non-lapsable fund for compensating states. As per the compensation Bill, states will be given full compensation for the first five years for any shortfall in revenue from what 14% annual growth from the 2015-16 base (Rs 4.42 lakh crore) would have otherwise yielded. The GST on domestic transactions will have two nearly equal components — CGST and SGST — on roughly the same base; similar will be the case of integrated GST on interstate transactions and imports. The exemption threshold for GST has been fixed at Rs 20 lakh for all states except the northeastern ones and the three hill states of Jammu and Kashmir, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, in whose case this limit would be Rs 10 lakh.
While the government is racing against time to usher in the new regime, experts and industry, however, remained concerned about some of the finer provisions in the Bills, including the one relating to work (composite) contracts (which could give a lot of discretionary powers to the tax authorities on the rate at which the tax is levied), implications for the industry due to the exclusion of Jammu and Kashmir from GST and the exclusion of services from duty drawback provisions for exporters.
Also, businesses need to register and be familiar with the GST Network, the IT backbone for running GST. As per the Bills the overall GST rate will be capped at 40% (20% for CGST, with states also supposed to have a similar ceiling in their SGST laws). Manufacturers up to Rs 50 lakh turnover will have the facility to pay a 1% tax on turnover (0.5% for other suppliers and 2.5% for restaurant services including food) without input tax credit.