One year since the goods and services tax’s (GST) rather haphazard July 2017 introduction, it has been nearly totally assimilated by the industry and consumers, who now have much less to cavil about than during the initial months, but the indirect tax’s structure still leaves much scope for simplification. Also, it has barely become evasion-proof. Little wonder then that GST’s presumed economic gains are yet to be fully visible.
Instead of a single-rate or two-rate system conceived by most analysts — including chief economic adviser Arvind Subramanian — India’s GST is levied at multiple (>7) rates (with cesses upon the peak rate for some demerit/‘luxury’ goods) and its aggregate rate is not as benign as they would have liked.
While policymakers are at pains to spot evidence of GST’s higher revenue buoyancy and highlight the ‘financeability’ of states’ considerable revenue shortfall, the budget managers are deeply worried over a yawning gap (`22,000 crore per month or 44%) between the Centre’s GST target for FY19 and the revenue being mobilised.
Of course, there has been a steady increase in ‘compliance’ (defined in terms of returns filing, nil-tax claim/payment of some tax, whether or not full). About 1.12 crore businesses are now registered for GST including 63.8 lakh who have migrated from the previous regime (new registrations are over 48 lakh).
Some 61-66% of the registered units have paid tax by the due date during the months so far and a trend is seen that after eight months, the filing rate crosses 90%. This is, however, no proof that evasion/underpayment of taxes doesn’t take place.
On its part, the government is hamstrung by the absence of comprehensive returns filing. So, matching invoices to check whether due tax is paid by businesses remains an unfulfilled task. Other anti-evasion measures like tax deducted/collected at source (TDS/TCS) and reverse charge mechanism (RCM) too have been kept in abeyance; these are now slated to be brought in from September 30. Though a robust system of return-filing can’t really wait, it has. The latest plan is to have one by January or April, 2019.
On the promise of converging GST rates for a simpler structure, finance secretary Hasmukh Adhia told FE: “One has to go in that direction but not so soon. In India, we have got different classes of people. We have to protect the lower-middle class and poor people. So the consumption items of this class have to be in the lower bracket.”
Recently, at the Idea Exchange programme of The Indian Express, Subramanian said the 28% rate (19% of items are under this bracket now) should go. “We need to rationalise (rates) but I think at the first instance the 28% should go,” he said. Asked whether items under 28% rate would be pruned further, Adhia said: “Not immediately. But as an when the scope is created for revenue sacrifice, it can be done.”
So, GST’s improvement doesn’t look immediate. “The simplification of GST is still some distance away. This is even as a key learning from the past year is that a semi-complete technical processes — having GSTR-1 returns but no GSTR-2 for instance — is problematic both for the government as well as the taxpayer. Compliance is not complete and confusion persists,” Bharat Goenka, managing director at Tally Solutions said.
Although the compliance system in place currently is a pale shadow of the original design — taxpayers are required to only file summary return and outward supply details in GSTR-3B and GSTR-1 forms while GSTR-2 and GSTR-3 have been suspended — the assessee base seems to have adapted to the same.
For the revenue targets of the Centre and states to be met (without the need for the latter to be compensated for shortfall), the monthly GST collections should cross `1 lakh crore. The overall GST collections in April 2018 was Rs 94,016 crore against the July 2017-March 2018 average of a little lower than Rs 90,000 crore.
As for states, the shortfall is less of an immediate concern as any shortfall from the protected revenue (14% annual growth) is fully compensated. As many as 31 of 34 states/UTs in the country reported a ‘revenue shortfall’ during the July 2017-March 2018 period — among the larger states, Bihar’s deficit was 38% and Madhya Pradesh’s 26%.
The government believes that half of the states will not require GST compensation in two-three years, as buoyancy improves. The e-away bill mechanism, implemented in phases since April, has helped and once the new returns filing system is in place, the revenue growth might pick up further, it feels. “The main reason for worry is for the government of India. Unlike the states, we don’t have guaranteed revenue growth. We have to fend for ourselves. If the revenue growth isn’t on expected lines, we will be in trouble,” Adhia said.
On the technology front, the glitches suffered by the GSTN system have largely been rectified. Tax officials are now receiving vast amounts of data on assessees, which are being used to look for evaders. However, GSTN’s role would come into sharp focus again when it implements the new simplified return system.
In the coming months, the GSTN will release forms for assessment and audit and would be able to collate income-tax information of assessees as well. These steps are expected to encourage accurate reporting of sales and curb evasion.
For GST to be comprehensive, auto fuels and real estate ought to be brought under the tax. However, even after a year, the possibility of including petroleum products, real estate and alcohol remain distant in the absence of consensus at the GST Council. Adhia said natural gas and ATF are two “natural candidates” for being under GST.
The patchy implementation of GST has been evident from the multiple times rates were reduced and new rates were prescribed. Also, more than 20 items were given exemptions since July and deadlines have been deferred multiple times.
“The government has rationalised the rates of GST several times in the past one year by moving the goods of daily use from the tax slab of 28% to 12% or 18%. It is noteworthy that the rates of almost all goods except luxury items have either reduced or remain same after the implementation of GST. The main benefit of GST to consumers has arisen due to removal of cascading effects of taxes and seamless availability of tax credit,” Vishal Raheja, DGM GST at Taxmann, said.