[Burning Issue] Successes and Failures of GST after 5 years

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Context

  • The monumental indirect tax reform, the Goods and Services Tax (GST), completed five years in existence in July 2022.
  • This burning issue edition would analyze the impacts of GST on the Indian economy and whether the reform has achieved its stated objectives or not.

What is GST?

  • GST is an indirect tax that has replaced many indirect taxes in India such as excise duty, VAT, services tax, etc.
  • The Goods and Service Tax Act was passed in Parliament on 29th March 2017 and came into effect on 1st July 2017. It is a single domestic indirect tax law for the entire country.
  • It is a comprehensive, multi-stage, destination-based tax that is levied on every value addition.
  • Under the GST regime, the tax is levied at every point of sale. In the case of intra-state sales, Central GST and State GST are charged. All the inter-state sales are chargeable to the Integrated GST.

What are the components of GST?

There are three taxes applicable under this system:

  • CGST: It is the tax collected by the Central Government on an intra-state sale (e.g., a transaction happening within Maharashtra).
  • SGST: It is the tax collected by the state government on an intra-state sale (e.g., a transaction happening within Maharashtra).
  • IGST: It is a tax collected by the Central Government for an inter-state sale (e.g., Maharashtra to Tamil Nadu)

Why was GST introduced?

  • Offer a win-win situation: The profound idea behind the implementation of GST was that it would offer a win-win situation for all stakeholders, be it the governments at the Centre or States, taxpayers, or tax administrators.
  • Address previous tax regime challenges: Previous indirect tax regime was marred by cascading effect of taxation, high tax evasion and informalisation. GST was a solution for all these negativities.
  • Benefit all stakeholders: Manufacturers and traders were to benefit from fewer and easier electronic tax filings, transparent rules, cost reduction and ease in record maintenance. Consumers would be paying lesser for the goods and services, and the government would generate more revenues by plugging revenue leakages through the adoption of efficient data analytic tools.

Outcomes after 5 years of GST implementation

(A) Positive outcomes

  • Reduced cascading effect: GST has mainly removed the cascading effect on the sale of goods and services. Removal of the cascading effect has impacted the cost of goods as the GST regime eliminates the tax on tax, and the cost of goods decreases.
  • Increase in the number of registrants: The ease of payments has improved over time with the technical glitches having been slowly sorted out, leading to a record number of GST registrants – increasing from 1.08 crore in April 2018 to 1.36 crore in 2022.
  • Increased revenue generation: The revenue gains have been significant. The system witnessed record GST collections on a month-on-month basis. For the past 11 months, GST collections have crossed Rs 1 lakh crores mark.
  • Improved EDB rankings: The introduction of GST has simplified business processes, tax administration and compliances in India. The Ease of Doing Business Index, a measure used by the World Bank Group in which ‘paying taxes’ is one of the important parameters used to determine country rankings, has shown significant change. India’s ranking during the last three years showed a sharp upward momentum from 100 in 2018 to 77 in 2019 and 63 in 2020 – a jump of 37 places in 3 years.
  • GST and technology: With the introduction of GST, the country adopted a pan-India technology platform. After the initial hiccups, the GST portal started handling registration and compliance functions with consummate ease. Also, the integration of the Customs/SEZ portal and sharing of data with other departments/regulators within the government helped explore the unexplored areas of data analytics and audit.
  • Robust unified e-way bill system: introduced in 2018, has facilitated dispensing with the archaic check-posts, thereby reducing supply chain lead time and associated costs for companies and helping the tax administration monitor tax compliances and potential revenue leakages better.
  • The introduction of e-invoicing: from October 2020, provided a system that allows real-time data reporting by taxpayers. The availability of real-time and relevant data helped in the detection of tax fraud and curbing evasion. Further, the standardized format and data reporting allowed the interoperability of data for multiple reports and filings.
  • Rate reshuffling: One of the important principles of the GST is a simplified rate structure. The government has made attempts to reshuffle the rates, with the number of goods in the 28% and 5% tax brackets coming down considerably in the previous five years.

(B) Negative Outcomes

  • Politics influence the decision of the GST Council: Ideally, political affiliations should not matter in a Council set up to decide indirect taxes. During the Covid period, several of the 14 members of the groups who belong to parties different from the party ruling in the Centre, requested the Finance Minister to convene the GST meeting to help them manage their finances but none of the 17 members of the ruling group deemed it necessary.
  • Increase in inflation: During the 12 months preceding GST implementation, the Consumer Price Index (CPI) inflation was 3.66%, while it increased to 4.24% post-GST in the next 12 months.
  • Provisions for unregistered GST suppliers: The micro, small and medium enterprises (MSME) sector has been affected by the GST reforms because the large units have been reluctant to buy from them in the absence of input duty credit.
  • Reduced GDP rate: GDP growth rate, instead of rising, has fallen quarter-on-quarter from 8% in Q4 of 2017-18 to 3.1% in Q4 of 2019-20, just before the pandemic hit. Of course, the entire decline cannot be attributed to GST but it has contributed substantially to it by damaging the unorganized non-agriculture sector which is 31% of the GDP.
  • Operational difficulties: Due to the complexities and lack of clarity in official pronouncements, businesses and chartered accountants complain of difficulties. A company that operates nationally has to file forms monthly for each state of operation – adding up to hundreds of forms. 
  • Not truly one nation, one tax: While a category of good or service has one tax rate nationally, across goods and services there are many tax rates (at least 8). This goes counter to the requirement of GST that there be one tax rate but in an economy like India that is not feasible given the poverty and diversity of production structures.

Way Forward

  • Refining the compliance system of GST: A GST in India continues to be a compliance burden with manifold filing obligations and lengthy returns. This has led to exorbitant compliance costs and efforts. An urgent need is to have rationalized, simplified, robust and reduced compliance conditions with sufficient scope for rectification and amendment to guarantee that correct disclosure can be made with the minimum difficulty and delay.
  • Improving the GSTN system: One of the big challenges is that the GST Network (GSTN) compliance portal is yet to reach full operating capacity. From a credit standpoint, the GSTN portal has not accomplished the capability to match the efficacy of invoices. This is perhaps the main reason for fraudulent activities and fake invoices. The basic idea behind the digitalization of returns was to guarantee accurate compliance, leading to an accurate streamlining of credit and taxes.
  • Further rate streamlining: A uniform and rationalized tax rate structure is a central characteristic of any effective GST legislation. Although the GST legislation has made some advances on this front, much work is needed to attain this target. Many nations implementing GST have only one rate for all items. From zero to 28%, India has seven rates, and this number goes up if we also take into account compensation rates. It would be better to reduce the GST tax rates to two or three.
  • HS codes: There is also the requirement to restructure the GST rate list and make it compatible with machine processing. The GST uses harmonized structure (HS) codes for classifying most items. All GST rates should confirm to HS’s six-digit standard description. 
  • Formation of the GST Appellate Tribunal: Even after half a decade of GST execution, the GST Appellate Tribunal is yet to be established. This has resulted in multiple court cases, heavy interest costs and GST refunds being trapped. The wait for the creation of a statutory appellate tribunal discourages the dispute resolution method. The GST has resulted in a sharp rise in litigation largely because of ambiguous legal stipulations and how officials have issued orders.
  • Increased investment in technology: With technology impacting all parts of the business, greater investment in technology for updating the user interface and making it simpler to use, especially for small and medium enterprises, could place the GST in India on par with the rest of the world and help accomplish the bigger goal of the ease of doing business.
  • Raising the exemption limit: The government must set small business firms free by lifting the exemption limit. As per GST data, out of 14 million registrations, companies with less than INR15 million annual turnover account for 84%, but contribute less than 7% of the tax collected. The exemption limit must be lifted to INR15 million for goods and services. This is a monthly turnover of INR1.5 million, which at 10% of the profit margin converts into just INR120,000.
  • Inclusion of fuels and real estate: Including natural gas/ATF under GST should be considered. Further reforms in the factor markets — land, real estate and energy — would require their inclusion in the GST. This is essential because while the economic reforms of the 1990s restructured the product market, the factor market reforms were incomplete.
  • Creation of federal institution: We need to create another institution in the form of a GST state secretariat that can bring together senior officers from the Centre and states in an institutional forum registered under the Society Act. This forum could also provide a common point of contact for trade and industry to redress grievances on non-policy matters.

Conclusion

  • As Winton Churchill remarked ‘success is not final, failure is not fatal; it is the courage to continue that counts!’
  • Therefore, the GST reform has come a long way but still, multiple challenges are to be addressed to make it a success and achieve the objectives that were stated during its launch.  

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