HTLS 2019 | India needs a simpler tax code, no ifs and buts: FM Sitharaman
Sitharaman, in a conversation at the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit, said that the government had already taken steps to boost business sentiment, and is committed to a simpler tax code.Updated: Dec 08, 2019 01:07 IST
Laying out a road map for the government’s plan to reverse the economic slowdown, finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman said on Saturday that it is committed to greater public expenditure, working on elements of a further stimulus to boost demand and incomes, and also addressing fears of adventurism by taxmen.
Sitharaman, in a conversation at the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit, said that the government had already taken steps to boost business sentiment, and is committed to a simpler tax code, “without ifs and buts” to help revive the economy.
Explaining the delayed payment of compensation to states under the Goods and Services Tax (GST) regime, the finance minister also acknowledged, for the first time, that “unstructured” rate cuts had distorted the GST. But she categorically said that the compact with the states would be “honoured” and their concerns were genuine.
But the key thrust of Sitharaman’s remarks were centred on the larger state of the Indian economy, in a clear sign that the government was aware of the concerns and the perceptions around it. While hoping that the economy has bottomed out, with the 4.5% GDP growth in the July-September quarter, the finance minister said that she would not let that hope lull her. “I will be happy if that is the case. But my attention is that more is done for a greater stimulus. I won’t allow that to distract me.”
The larger plan to revive the growth trajectory, the FM said, involved public expenditure. “You will say that private investment is not happening. But we have made repeated commitments of public expenditure in terms of core sector revival and jobs. The government has said it will spend ₹100 lakh crore in the next five years. And the task force for this has already listed out the items for big ticket expenditure.”
The FM pointed out that while the GDP figures for the last quarter came out for the period ending September, the government had announced a range of measures in that period and subsequently, indicating that its impact would be seen now. “There are concrete figures for what has happened in October and November. With public banks reaching out, and even private banks getting involved, nearly ~5 lakh crore has been given after following norms to those who take credit, across 400 districts. This is money reaching people directly for consumption in the hinterland.”
The other way, Sitharaman said, the government could channel money was through the Direct Benefits Transfer (DBT), to farmers and small and medium scale industries, and this was happening too. “So for giving stimulus and consumption, we are adopting a direct method. And also the method we are spending on infrastructure, whose spillover can go to core industries and labour.”
When asked if there will be more such steps, a guarded FM said, “If I say yes, it will be when. If I say yes, it will be thrown to me that are you not too close to the budget? So I don’t want to say yes, although I am wishing I can say yes. At the same time, I won’t say no because we are working on more.”
To a question on whether the government was thinking of a rationalisation or reduction of personal income tax rates, which would leave more money and thus boost demand, the FM said that’s “one among the many things we are thinking of,” suggesting that people should wait for the budget.
On the debate on whether the government is open to breaching the fiscal deficit in order to boost expenditure, or would prefer sticking to the target, the FM said that she would rather reserve her comments on the issue until the budget. “Technically, nothing stops from me doing it. But will I do it? I can’t say now.”
But she added that she was not opposed to it “in principle”. “Fiscal discipline is a law. I have to obey the Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management Act. I have to follow the glide path given to me from 2014, if not 2004. I have to confine myself to that glide path, even if it is strictly difficult. But that is a law and I have to obey it. That is one story. But there is another story. Learned economists are all telling us you can pause on fiscal discipline, and move towards funding for stimulus and bypass the law. It is all being discussed.”
The economic slowdown has got reflected in the dampened consumer and business sentiment. On the former, the FM said that she had, for the last three months, asked every interlocutor what could be done to boost consumer sentiment and was open to suggestions. “I don’t want to believe I know it all, or that I have done it all. And I want to know what else can be done.”
But on business sentiment, Sitharaman spoke in detail about the steps that had been taken, particularly in the realm of taxation.
Within this, the first element was to reduce harassment and ensure a more taxpayer-friendly system. “The effort to make taxmen understand that there are ways to achieve the same end -- obtain more credible information from a tax assessee -- rather than appearing to breathe down their neck and leaving them to feel they are being harassed. This effort had started much before me, during the time of my predecessor (the late Arun Jaitley), who I respect immensely and whose absence, I can’t say how much, I feel. During his time, the effort started to explain to taxmen to understand there is no reason to harass.”
The FM said she was now physically going to (income tax) circles. “I am meeting officials and telling them that even if you feel that targets cannot be met unless you strain yourself, I would rather you not strain and pressure tax assessees. ”The move to technology, she added, where assessees can now answer to the system, and further information requirement can also happen on a faceless method will also help.” It has started on direct taxes and we have extended to indirect, GST-related queries.”
Second, the FM said she had also come up with a scheme for cases which have been pending for long. “If, by December 31, you tick certain boxes on the enquiry , we are willing to settle the cases and try to get you out of the court and get us out of the court.”
Third, the FM appealed to assessees to directly approach her office or that of the revenue secretary. “We assure you that if have a problem at the ground level, without revealing your identity to the concerned circles officers, we shall make sure your problem is addressed.”
But finally, the FM said that in the long run, their aim was to simplify the entire taxation structure, and ensure that there are no ifs and buts in it, because that is where subjective interpretations come in. “We want to remove ifs and buts, remove exemptions. We proved our intentions when the corporate tax rate cut was announced. We said give us the least you can...That will be the philosophy with which every tax would now be framed. We are moving to a simplified and, therefore, exemption-free, therefore subjective interpretation-free, and therefore harassment-free regime.”
The FM also spoke of three sectors which have gone through stress in recent times. The first was real estate, where Sitharaman referred to the government’s special scheme of ₹ 25,000 crore to ease the crunch in the sector, where unfinished projects across the country, especially in big urban centres like Delhi-NCR, have caused great distress. “By 15 December, money will go into escrow account to complete their projects. I want to assure homebuyers in the lurch that we are fully seized of the problem.”
The second was the crisis in the non-banking finance companies (NBFCs). The FM said she had extensively held consultations with NBFCs. While analysing how the lines between the functions of public sector and private commercial banks, and those of NBFCs had got blurred, leading to the troubles, she mentioned her one-line guiding principle. “I don’t want anyone falling off the cliff. And that is the extent to which we are watching them but not getting in their way.” Building on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s remarks at the summit on Friday that bankers should take decisions without fear, the FM added that the government would not enquire into commercial decisions even if it results in commercial failure and there would be no “fishing expeditions”.
And the final sector was agriculture, where the nature of the crisis has been reflected in low farm incomes, which in turn had resulted in lower rural demand. The FM spoke of encouraging more agriculture exports by recognising the products in demand in markets outside and focusing on them and providing better infrastructure, especially storage facilities tuned to specific needs. The FM also acknowledged that there was a debate about the trade-off between low food prices, which helped consumers but had potentially adverse consequences on farm incomes, and high food prices, which harmed consumers but had the opposite implications for farmers if market distortions did not creep in.
At a time when there has been an ongoing debate on the credibility of India’s statistical regime and data, the FM said there was no doubt that there was a need to bring credibility back to data.
“But if sometimes when genuinely something has gone wrong, it is not to cast aspersions on every such data. We are seized of the debate on data and its credibility.” She added that the government was committed to making available more data, and ensuring better credibility of data.