By Vatsal Khullar
As we move closer to the July 1 deadline of rolling out Goods and Services Tax (GST), the authorities are busy working out the details related to its implementation. Last week, central and state Finance Ministers met in Srinagar to finalise GST rates. Following this, the government has indicated that to monitor prices of various items it may set up an anti-profiteering authority. Some of the common questions about GST rates and their impact on prices are discussed below:
The GST Council has classified various items under five different tax rates: (i) 5%, (ii) 12%, (iii) 18%, (iv) 28%, and (v) 28% with an additional GST compensation cess (see Table). While tax rates for most of the goods and services have been approved by the Council, rates for some remaining items such as biscuits, textiles, footwear, and precious metals are expected to be decided in its next meeting on June 3, 2017.
No, certain items such as alcohol for human consumption and petroleum products such as petrol, diesel and natural gas will be exempt under the GST. In addition to these, the GST Council has also classified certain items under the 0% tax rate, implying that GST will not be levied on them. This list includes items of daily use such as wheat, rice, milk, eggs, fresh vegetables, meat and fish. Some services such as education and healthcare will also be exempt under GST.
GST subsumes various indirect taxes and seeks to reduce cascading of taxes (tax on tax). With greater efficiency in the supply of products, enhanced flow of tax credits, removal of border check posts, and changes in tax rates, prices of goods and services may come down. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley recently stated recently stated that the Council has classified several items under lower tax rates, when compared to the current system.
However, since some tax rates such as VAT currently vary across states, the real impact of GST rates on prices may become clear only after its roll-out. For example, at present VAT rates on smart phones range between 5-15% across states. Under GST they will be taxed at 12%. As a result, while phones may become marginally cheaper in some states, their prices may go up in some others.
Few people such as the Union Revenue Secretary and Finance Ministers of Kerala and Jammu and Kashmir have expressed concerns that companies may not lower their prices despite a fall in tax rates, in order to increase their profits. The Revenue Secretary also stated that the government had received reports of few businesses increasing their product prices in anticipation of GST.
To take care of such cases, the GST laws contain a provision which allows the centre to constitute an anti-profiteering authority. The authority will ensure that a reduction in tax rates under GST is passed on to the consumers. Specific powers and functions of the authority will be specified by the GST Council.
Various laws have been enacted over the years to control the pricing of essential items or check for unfair market practices. For example, the Essential Commodities Act, 1955 controls the price of certain necessary items such as medicines, food items and fertilisers.
Parliament has also created statutory authorities like the Competition Commission of India to check against unfair trade practices such as cartelisation by businesses to inflate prices of goods. Regulators, such as the National Pharmaceutical Pricing Authority, are also responsible for regulating prices for items in their sectors.
To fulfil its mandate, the anti-profiteering authority could get involved in determining prices of various items. This may even require going through the balance sheets and finances of various companies. Some argue that this is against the idea of prices being determined by market forces of demand and supply.
Another aspect to consider here is that the price of items is dependent on a combination of factors, in addition to applicable taxes. These include the cost of raw material, technology used by businesses, distribution channels, or competition in the market.
Imagine a case where the GST rate on a category of cars has come down from the current levels, but rising global prices of raw material such as steel have forced a manufacturer to increase prices. Given the mandate of the authority to ensure the passing of lower tax rates to consumers, will it also consider the impact of rising input costs deciding the price of an item? Since factor costs keep fluctuating, in some cases the authority may find it difficult to evaluate the pricing decision of a business.
Some countries such as Malaysia have in the past introduced laws to check if companies were making unreasonably high profits after the roll-out of GST. While the law was supposed to remain in force for a limited period, the deadline has been extended a few times. In Australia, during the roll out of GST in the early 2000s, an existing authority was entrusted with the role of taking action against businesses that unreasonably increased prices. The authority also put in place a strategy to raise consumer awareness about the available recourse in cases of price exploitation.
With rates for various items being approved, and the government considering a mechanism to ensure that any inflationary impact is minimised, the focus now shifts to the implementation of GST. This includes operationalisation of the GST Network and notification of rules relating to registration under GST and payment of tax. The weeks ahead will be crucial for the authorities and various taxpayers in the country to ensure that GST is successfully rolled out from July 1, 2017.
A version of this article has also been published on the PRS Blog.