Developments on implementation of the GST

As with many other problems in Indian economic reform, getting to the right destination on the GST requires winning on policy, politics and administration. On the policy side, the basic design of the GST needs to be done right. Pulling this off will require great political skill – a coalition of beneficiaries from the GST will need to champion it in the Indian federal setting. Finally, assuming that the policy and the politics has been done well, it will require the right plumbing. In this blog post, we review progress on this third element.

Done right, the GST ought to replace all existing indirect taxes. It should treat all goods and all services identically. It should be a
single administrative system covering tax payments to both Centre and States thus eliminating the compliance cost that is associated with dealing with multiple tax authorities. It should be globalisation-compatible: goods and services sold to non-residents would be fully refunded the entire burden of indirect taxation that has been incurred at all stages of production. India would then follow
the principle of not taxing non-residents.

These are powerful and important economic concepts. However, their translation into reality is critically about execution. In the case of the GST, as with the New Pension System, the problem of execution is substantially (though not entirely) a question about  building large IT systems.

While much of the legal and policy framework around GST is still being worked on by the Central Government in consultation with States, some progress has been made on setting up the infrastructure for processing registration, returns, and payments in a standardised manner. A detailed note on the IT infrastructure for GST has been put up by the Ministry of Finance.

In terms of organisation structure, existing success stories include the Tax Information Network (TIN) and the New Pension System,
both of which are being managed by NSDL. A more general concept of ‘National Information Utilities’ (NIU) was proposed by the TAGUP Report. This report drew on the success of establishing market infrastructure institutions such as NSE and NSDL, and recommended that NIUs be such non-Government companies, with Central and State Governments as joint shareholders, dispersed shareholding among other institutions, avoiding shareholders that may have a conflict of interest, and avoiding listing on exchanges. In spirit, NIUs must have the efficiency of a private corporations, but be animated by a public purpose.

In the Budget Speech of 2012-13, the Finance Minister announced that a NIU for implementing the GST would be constructed. It would be called GSTN and would be fully operational by August 2012. The first steps towards constructing GSTN have now been taken, with a Cabinet approval for GSTN. The official press release on this says:

The Cabinet has approved a proposal to set up a Special Purpose
Vehicle (SPV) namely Goods and Services Tax Network SPV (GSTN SPV) to
create enabling environment for smooth introduction of Goods and
Services Tax (GST). GSTN SPV will provide IT infrastructure and
services to various stakeholders including the Centre and the States.

The GSTN SPV would be incorporated as a Section 25 (not-for-profit),
non-Government, private limited company in which the Government will
retain strategic control. It would have an equity capital of Rs. 10
crore, with the Centre and States having equal stakes of 24.5%
each. Non Government institutions would hold 51% equity. No single
institution would hold more that 10% equity, with the possibility of
one private institution holding a maximum of 21% equity.

GTSN SPV would have a self-sustaining revenue model, based on levy of
user charges on tax payers and tax authorities availing its
services. While the SPV’s services would be critical to actual rollout
of GST at a future date, it is also expected to render valuable
services to the Centre / State tax administrations prior to the GST
implementation.

Implementing the GST

For many years, India has been in a slow processes of evolving towards a dual centre-state GST. The rough picture is one with two
distinct but harmonised taxes, which have an integrated IT system so as to sharply reduce compliance costs. A key dimension is that of properly integrating domestic taxation with international trade in goods and services, by zero-rating exports (thus exempting
non-residents) and by charging the GST upon imports (thus taxing the full consumption of residents).

This process has faced two challenges: politics and administration. On the political side, the puzzle lies in having
enough states sign up into a system where all taxes other than the GST are abolished, and where firms face an integrated nationwide
administration. This would enable a unified Indian common market. Things seem to be going badly on that front.

The administrative challenge is one of project management. The Indian policy landscape contains many important ideas where the
political hurdles have been crossed, but where execution has been lacking.

Today there is news of a concete project management strategy for the GST: see this story by Surabhi Agarwal in the Mint. So while there might be many failures on the political side of the GST, atleast we now know that there will be some coherent project management which will yield a working GST system within a year or two.

The idea of bringing NSDL into this problem is not new. Ever since the Tax Information Network (TIN) was built by NSDL for the income tax department, it was well understood that handling of VAT credits is much like handling of TDS. In 2004, the Task
Force on Implementation of the FRBM Act
, chaired by Vijay Kelkar, had said in the executive summary: “Hence, the Task
Force recommends that the existing TIN and OLTAS systems, developed by CBDT, should be used for the implementation of the GST, both at the Centre and at States.
” We wasted a lot of time in getting to this destination, but while the wheels grind slow, they have
ground true. When NSE and NSDL came about in the early 1990s, we had little idea about the far-reaching consequences of what was coming together.