Fringe Notes!
अहम् ब्रह्मास्मि

GST and the end of hope

Economy

“Road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

GST – good and service tax, summed as India’s biggest tax reform in the last many years, is finally here. GST empowered committee in one of their last meeting, finalized rates on pending items with Gold getting taxed at a new rate of 3%. The empowered committee other than creating an additional layer of tax also proposed to impose levy/cess etc beyond specified 5 slabs of taxes.

Multiple tax rates, levy, cess, additional taxes!! It seems that somewhere the present Govt just lost the plot and caved into interested parties by enacting the same complicated rules as they were there before GST. Somebody summed up the situation correctly saying that it would have been better to rename the existing taxes as GST rather than going through this administrative nightmare.

If the multiple rates are not enough, Govt has gone ahead and created, even more, confusion by having multiple rates within a single service i.e. look at multiple tax rates at hotel rooms. Zero tax for rooms up to INR 1000, 28% on rooms above 5000 and few more slabs in between. These multiple rates are going to create litigation, an opportunity for corruption and money laundering. For example, a room priced at 999 for two people, get triple occupancy and now move to 10% tax bracket. The customer not willing to pay additional tax will force hotelier to adjust and hotelier, in order to not lose business, will accommodate and end up doing a crime which was not needed.

Adam Smith, the revered economist said that for taxation to be helpful in building nation-state, it needs to have three things in place. First, tax rates shall be reasonable. Second, it shall be easy to pay taxes and the third penalty shall be severe in the case of noncompliance.

If existing tax regime in India was the antithesis to all of three preambles of an efficient tax structure, GST has made it even worse. Multiple tax rates, the filing of tax report every month and on top of it almost draconian powers at the hand of tax officials.

It seems Indian govt is not working to create “ease of business” but is rather trying to ease out small businesses. For example, a trader has a turnover of 30 lakh will come under the ambit of GST and will have to do all compliance including having service of some CA firm which seems reasonable. However, a turnover of 30 lakh will hardly generate a net income of INR 30,000 to 40,000 even at 10% net margin. Can a person earning 30,000 per month, afford all IT infrastructure and have the mental capability of accounting for multiple rates, adjustments, input credits? Can he or she afford the services of a qualified CA to do all paperwork? While life becomes massively complicated for small vendors, it becomes a nightmare who is operating in multiple states. If a company was filing some 15-20 returns a year, it will be now filing 400 returns a year!!

Probably this explains as to why Business papers / Indian Inc, leading consulting firms and Share market are going gaga over such complicated GST regime. GST by virtue of complex compliance regime will wipe out small/informal business in one stroke and will shift all the market to big organized firms while at the same time simplify business/tax rates to a great extent for big businesses. This will boost the income of organized sector, will create more wealth for big players and boost GDP for sure but will also render all small businesses out of circulation. We might see a replay of the present scenario where SENSEX is creating new record every day and India is among the fastest GDP growth nation but there are no jobs!! This push by present complex GST system will create massive unemployment and will open India to global shocks as the informal business will not be there to absorb millions of youths looking for jobs every year.

Hence one wonders what is the intention of Govt behind GST? Off course one aim was always to plug the leakages, collect more taxes (8th Pay Commission is due) but why no attempt or thought to simplify life for small businesses.

Conspiracy theories among us will jump and say that it has been planned by big business to rob the informal sector etc. However, it seems that it is more a case of Hanlon Razor (Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity) than anything else.

Every year Govt leaders/bureaucrats tour developed nations showcasing India and pleading for investments while offering many sops to companies and one wonder why not same sops to SMEs in India? Free industrial land, no inspector raj, freedom from onerous compliance and one window scheme for starting the business?

Rather than simplifying life for small businesses, every move of the Govt is aimed at creating more litigation, collect more taxes while doubting every step of small businesses with zero trusts? Why a democratic govt chosen by popular vote, would like to make life more traumatic for the majority of its citizens (share of the small business / informal economy is far more bigger in India compared to OECD countries)?

The answer does not lie in NDA or UPA but is hidden in India’s history. India which was ruled for almost 1000 year by foreign rulers always had laws which were designed to rule and not to govern.  The rulers (foreigners with no empathy for local population) wanted to collect maximum taxes to fill their coffers ( look at growth in British GDP and decline in Indian GDP from 1800 to 1947 or wealth of Mughals who came on a bare horseback to India). Moreover, the rulers and their agents have a very low view of natives and minimal trust ( all are thieves).  This led to the creation of a governance model which was heavily rule-driven with an idea to plug any possible loophole with maximum power at the hand of the government servant.

Unfortunately post-independence, rather than building a nation for Indians, the new government just continued with the traditions/rules of Britishers (that was worst crime of Pandit Nehru) and maintained the same thought process of the rule rather than governance. This policy ensured that Indian businesses crawl only with the burden of compliance/bureaucracy/inspector raj sitting on its head.

In 2014, the election of Narendra Modi who had no baggage of Western training led to a faint hope that India will finally see freedom from the British rule in theory and practice. The shackles of bureaucracy will be broken and laws will be made with a focus on governance rather than the rule. Unfortunately, rolling out of GST in its present format has shattered all the hopes. If a Right-wing party led by a strong PM almost with Superman image, cannot tackle bureaucracy and can not usher Regan era in India, then no will.

Hence the hope that India will be able to cut its past of 1000 years of slavery, move forward and join the league of big nations has dashed against reality.

GST in a simpler form would have ended the tyranny of tax officials/bureaucracy, unlocked the real potential of Indian business crippled by inspectors raj and would have taken India to another level of prosperity/wealth while creating millions of jobs and boosting consumption.

Sadly, the hope has ended, God Save the King.