GST: Diminishing the Union Budget
The hype over the introduction of GST created such an atmosphere as if India would be radically different from the midnight of June 30. There was widespread fear that prices will zoom, trading will collapse, farmers would be burdened with huge tax, and retailers would cheat consumers, charging a premium on old stocks of goods.
It reminded one of the scares over the infamous "Dunkel Draft" in the run-up to the adoption of WTO years back. Dunkel was to stop sowing of crops in India, create intellectual property for the West out of thin air, and so on. Dunkel Draft came and went. WTO was adopted and stricter intellectual property laws were sought to be rammed into.
Today, WTO itself looks like it has been forgotten. WTO which had fallen by the wayside and global trade is still going on, and rankling over IPO- no less or more fierce.
The show and pomp over the introduction of GST now look a little jaded. After all, it was just a change in tax administration. Whether it merited a Central Hall treatment itself appears somewhat exaggerated. Admittedly, the journey to June 30 has been rather tortuous. Surely, it involved an enormous amount of cajoling and contortions to arrive at this position.
RL Stevenson, author of Treasure Island and noted essayist, concluded one of his writings with the observation: "To travel hopefully is as important as to arrive". Certainly, the journey towards the eventual roll out of a single tax on all goods and services throughout the country was noteworthy. When it was proposed first time by Dr. Vijay Kelkar in 2004, it was just about an intellectual intent.
Vijay Kelkar is one of the most accomplished economic administrators in this country. A technocrat, to begin with, Kelkar had subsequently studied economics. He had acquired the reputation of being one of the most well-read persons, alongside the redoubtable Sukhamoy Chakraborty. Sukhamoy died young but as long as he was alive and sitting in his small chamber in the Planning Commission, he was considered the oracle. A small group of people would gather around, and Vijay Kelkar often would be one of them.
As an adviser to the Finance Minister, Kelkar had written and deliberated on an amazingly wide variety of topics on economic policy and administration in this country. At one point he had suggested creating a natural gas grid for meeting the energy requirements of the country. The idea was proposed well ahead of its time, it appears in hindsight. Natural gas, as a clean, reliable, and useful source of energy, has become fashionable only nowadays.
Kelkar had looked into the maze that was indirect taxation and mooted the idea of sweeping away the cobwebs with a uniform single impost with just one single rate of 5 per cent. It was inconceivable when it was first mooted. This involved surmounting the enormous impediment of objections from states. After all, states had little taxing powers to fund their ever more rising thirst. How could they be convinced that such a system could also protect states' interests?
Ironically the job was entrusted to the Leftist West Bengal government's Finance Minister. Dr. Ashim Dasgupta, although Finance Minister of a Left-ruled state, which had a decades-long tradition of cringing, was less of a hardcore Communist as he was an economist. A teacher of economics at the Calcutta University, students were extremely fond of his neat lectures on growth theory. He had gone to America to study the subject further, and pronouncedly right-wing economist, Jagdish Bagwati, is once reputed to have observed that he could never make out that Ashim Dasgupta was a Communist.
As chairman of the Empowered Committee on GST, Ashim Dasgupta had taken on the task of persuading recalcitrant state Finance Ministers to accept the idea. He had become so adept with the issues of rolling out a national GST that Dasgupta could lecture on the subject at industry bodies for hours on end without a scrap of paper. The biggest irony was, however, that the GST negotiations and the bill could not be completed for a long time for dogged opposition from none other than Narendra Modi as Gujarat Chief Minister. Fatefully, it is he who would one day take the centre stage in the Parliament's Central Hall to launch the Good and Simple Tax.
Good it is, but whether it is simple could be doubted.
GST implementation would be one of the most complicated tasks, with its smooth and successful functioning predicated on the dedicated IT backbone which has been developed. One can safely say that there will be bugs in the system once it starts working on the ground. There would be anomalies in the structure which will call for immediate corrective action. But in the end, it should work fine.
The Good thing is that once the fine-tuned, correctly honed tax structure is in place, it will make a difference.
To my mind, the first difference it will make will be to the Union budget. Once GST is working, the Union budget would be redundant for popular interest. After all, the day after the Union budget was placed, the lay person would look for the prices. Depending on the Finance Ministers' whims and fancies, and the depth of the budget deficit, excise duties would be raised (mostly) jacking up prices of ACs and fridges to biscuits and cigarettes. Cigarettes had borne the greatest brunt.
All that will be in the past. The Union Finance Minister will have no powers to change taxes, whether he has increasing deficit or a surplus in the budget. That can be done by the GST Council, which is the combined wisdom (or lack of it) of all 29 states and one Union Finance Minister. This is good but could be bad as well, as the taxing becomes rigid.
Secondly, it will generate resentment among those who fall now into the tax net. Because tax paid in an earlier part of a supply chain can be deducted from the tax liabilities at subsequent stages only if taxes have been paid at the earlier stages, all buyers would ask for proof of this. Hence, there will be self-policing and all have to fall in line. In effect, when the whole chain becomes operational, it should be possible that costs should come down.
Now, thirdly, will the government be magnanimous enough to cut down rates if overall revenues rise or in their greed the government will be profiteering on revenue bonanza? Let us wait and see if that overall Good should come.
(The views expressed are strictly personal.)