GST — 9 Months Later

The Goods and Services Tax (GST) has been in existence for close to nine months now. By now, we have sufficient data and other evidence to figure out, how well the nation has taken to this new tax.

Let’s first start with how the GST collections have been between July 2017 and February 2018. Take a look at Table 1.


Table 1: GST collections

(Amount in Rs Crores) Month Collection
August, 2017 93,590
September, 2017 93,029
October, 2017 95,132
November, 2017 85,931
December, 2017 83,716
January, 2018 88,929
February, 2018* 85,174

Source: Lok Sabha Unstarred Question Number 4809 and
* Up to March 26, 2018.

As can be seen from Table 1, the GST collections have fallen over the months, after having peaked in October 2017. Let’s dig into the numbers in a little more detail. The total GST collections for the month of February 2018 stand at Rs 85,174 crore. Out of this the central GST amounts to Rs 14,945 crore. In the month of January 2018, the total central GST collected had amounted to Rs 14,233 crore.

If this trend of central GST collected continues in the months to come, the central government might get into some major trouble on the revenue front. The question is why? In 2018-2019, the central government expects to collect a total of Rs 6,03,900 crore, as central GST. This amounts to Rs 50,325 crore per month, on an average.

The current central GST collections are nowhere near this number.

In comparison, in February 2018, Rs 42,456 crore was collected as integrated GST, which is split between central and state governments. In January 2018, the total integrated GST collected had been at Rs 43,794 crore.

Further, Rs. 12,140 crores is being transferred from integrated GST to central GST account for February 2018. Thus, the total central GST collection for the month will be at Rs 27,085 crore (Rs 14,945 crore + Rs 12,140 crore). This is nowhere near the Rs 50,325 crore that the central government expects to collect every month through central GST.

If this trend continues in 2018-2019, the revenue expected to be earned from GST, will be way short of what has been projected, unless central GST collections improve significantly from their current level.

Clearly, there is a problem here.

Around 1.05 crore taxpayers have been registered under GST up until now. Out of this number 86.37 lakh taxpayers are required to file a monthly return, the rest come under the composition scheme and are required to file the GST return quarterly.

Of the 86.37 lakh taxpayers who need to file their returns monthly, 59.51 lakh filed their return for the month of February 2018, up until March 25, 2018. This basically means that only 69% of taxpayers who are required to file a monthly return, did so. So, nearly a third of the taxpayers who are supposed to be filing tax returns, aren’t doing that currently.

The question is why is this happening? The GST network carried out a survey in October and November 2017, and the answers it got are fairly interesting. Let’s take a look:

1) There were gaps in general understanding of the electronic processes for complying on GST Portal (Specific technical Issues like Digital signature related problems etc.)

2) Helpdesk is not able to respond to problems effectively.

3) Mistakes in return cannot be corrected.

4) Site performance being slow and has multiple problems.

5) Contextual help not available. Errors are generic and non-intuitive.

6) It is extremely difficult to reach helpdesk. It takes a long time to respond to issues escalated.

In fact, almost all the issues raised above could have been tackled if the government hadn’t launched GST in a hurry and come up with a simpler system design. Also, system design isn’t really a strong point with the Indian government. This clearly comes out in the answers to the survey. Anyone who has filed his income tax return would vouch for this.

Over and above what the survey found out, the World Bank in a recent report provided evidence regarding the complexity of the Indian GST system. As the World Bank said: “The Indian GST system currently has 4 non-zero GST rates (5, 12, 18, and 28 percent)… Most countries around the World have a single rate of GST: 49 countries use a single rate, 28 use two rates, and only 5 countries including India use four rates. The countries that use four or more rates of GST include Italy, Luxembourg, Pakistan and Ghana. Thus, India has among the highest number of different GST rates in the world.”

The Indian politicians may have their reasons for doing this, but multiple rates, do complicate things for those who need to follow the GST system (remember self-assessment is at the heart of this system).

Take a look at Figure 1.

Figure 1:Other than having too many rates of tax, India also has one of the highest GST rates in the world. As the World Bank pointed out: “Comparing the design of India’s GST system with those prevailing internationally, we note that the tax rates in the Indian GST system are among the highest in the world. The highest GST rate in India, while only applying to a subset of goods and services traded, is 28 percent, which is the second highest among a sample of 115 countries which have a GST (VAT) system and for which data is available.”

Take a look at Figure 2.

Figure 2:Basically, there are too many design issues with India’s GST, making the system essentially complicated for people to follow. To this criticism, people have pointed out that the earlier system of multiple tax rates with no input credit was even more complicated. This is true. But people making this criticism do not get two points.

First, their criticism is valid for the indirect tax system that prevailed on the sale and movement of goods. It is not valid for services. The service tax system was inherently simpler than the current GST, even though no input tax credit was available (but then the rate tax was also lower at 15%). And 50% of the Indian economy is services, is a point which is worth remembering. Also, the service tax had to be paid after it had been collected from the customer. Now, GST needs to be paid, after the invoice is raised, irrespective of whether the GST has been paid or not.

This has led to many a small entrepreneur facing working capital issues, and in the process financing big corporations, which take their own sweet time to make the payment. As a freelance writer, we have been facing this problem at our small level as well. And it’s not a great place to be in.

Second, the entire idea behind GST was to expand the tax base and get more people to pay tax. A complicated system of filing returns goes against this entire idea. In July 2017, the total number of taxpayers who were required to file tax returns stood at 59.57 lakhs. This has since then increased to 1.05 crore. Nevertheless, the total tax collected has fallen from Rs.92,283 crore to Rs 85,174 crore. What explains this increase in number of taxpayers and falling tax collections? The complicatedness of the GST system.

The GST council is handling this in a very piecemeal manner, where they keep coming up with new rules every month, and create a bigger headache for those who have to follow the system. Instead, what is needed is the simplification of the entire system of following and filing the GST. And that is easier said than done because among other things it would mean admitting to having screwed up, which politicians don’t like to do.

Of course, it is unfair to just blame the system design. Tax evasion, as always, continues. But that was always a given. A simpler system would have clearly helped in tackling this.

The column was originally published on April 2, 2018, on Equitymaster