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A nation of tax avoiders?

March 07, 2017 13:27 IST

Exemptions, and the fact that farm income is outside the tax net, ensure that India’s tax-GDP ratio stays low.

The view that Indians don’t pay their fair share of taxes resonates widely in public discourse. So much so that even Finance Minister Arun Jaitley presented figures in his recent Budget to buttress the claim of India being a tax non-compliant society.

But how accurate is this widely held view? Is tax compliance, especially on the personal income tax side, as poor as is being made out to be? The data points in both directions.

Economists point to the Economic Survey (2015-16) which showed that the average tax-GDP ratio for emerging economies is 21.4 per cent, while that for India is way lower at 16.6 per cent.

The difference is largely on the direct tax side where India’s tax-GDP ratio is at 5.6 per cent compared to the emerging market average of 7.4 per cent.

On the indirect tax side, India’s tax-GDP ratio of 10.1 per cent is only marginally lower than the emerging market average of 10.8 per cent.

But is this frequent comparison with emerging economies a fair one to make?

Consider that despite being categorised as an emerging economy, India’s per capita income is well below that of other emerging economies.

Tax collections are obviously a function of income, among other things.

Even the BRICS economies have per capita income levels at least five times that of India’s. In 2015, India’s per capita income was $1,598, while that of China and Brazil was $8,027 and $8,538, respectively.

Ideally, the tax comparison should be made between countries at similar levels of income. As the universe of emerging economies is too diverse, let’s look at another country classification.

The World Bank classifies countries on the basis of income into four categories: low income, lower middle income, upper middle income and high income. India falls in the lower middle income category.

Now, according to World Bank data, the tax-GDP ratio for lower middle income countries was 11.4 per cent in 2013, marginally higher than that of India’s 11 per cent.

Of the 38 lower middle income countries whose data is available, 24 had tax collections higher than India but below 20 per cent.

Their average tax-GDP ratio worked out to 15.1 per cent in 2011. But these countries had an average per capita income of $ 2,524 -- 72 per cent higher than that of India.

Add to this the fact that the World Bank data only looks at taxes to the central government and thus excludes taxes paid to states and municipal corporations.

Multi-layered tax system

In India, state governments have the power to collect taxes on agricultural income and wealth, the tax on the sale and purchase of goods, excise duties on alcoholic products, taxes on motor vehicles, goods and passengers, stamp duties and registration fees on property transactions, entertainment tax and taxes and duties on electricity.

Thus a sizeable section of taxes are not part of the World Bank estimates.

While it is possible that a similar three-tier tax system exists in other countries, the comparison between countries is not as straightforward as it seems.

Part of the problem of a low tax base also has to do with the high exemption limit and the underlying structure of the economy.

While the average per capita income in India is Rs 1.16 lakh per annum, the tax exemption limit is more than twice at Rs 2.5 lakh. This automatically excludes a sizeable section of the labour force from the tax net, especially those engaged in the informal sector where wages are low.

“A large part of the workforce is engaged in the informal sector at very low wages. Given the low level of earnings, they are automatically excluded. In other emerging economies such as Argentina, the share of the formal sector is much larger than that of India. As a result, a larger number of people are in the tax net,” says Malini Chakravarty, additional coordinator (research), Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability.

Tax records for 2014 show that 47 per cent of those who file tax returns don’t pay any tax as they are below the exemption limit.

One also has to account for the fact that income from agriculture is exempted from tax, which automatically excludes a sizeable section of the population from the tax net.

Even gains from the sale of agricultural land are kept outside the tax system. On the other hand, the numbers on asset purchases, especially those of cars, used by Jaitley as a proxy for income, suggest that compliance is poor.

According to a report by Kotak Institutional Equities, from 2010 to 2014, a total of 12.26 million cars were sold in India. Of these roughly two-thirds, or 7.8 million, were valued above Rs 4 lakh. But what is striking is that the number of people with an income above Rs 10 lakh was only 2.4 million in 2014.

As it is safe to assume that people typically buy cars once every three to five years, it can be no one’s case that these individuals have bought these many cars. Even discounting for companies buying cars, the numbers don’t add up. This clearly shows the low levels of tax compliance.

On the corporate side, the low level of tax collection that the finance minister hinted at is a consequence of many factors: low earnings, poor compliance, structure of the economy and exemptions extended by governments.

“In the case of small enterprises, a large number simply do not earn enough to be in the tax net,” says Chakravarty. “Then concessions and incentives provided to companies and individuals lower the effective tax rates and hence taxes to be paid. Then, there is the issue of under-reporting of income,” she adds.

Exemptions galore

M Govind Rao, emeritus professor at the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy, wrote in a research paper that ‘an important reason for the narrow base of taxes is a plethora of exemptions given in direct and indirect taxes’.

Then, there is the structure of the economy.

“Part of the problem is also how businesses in India are structured. If you are dealing largely in cash, there is a tendency to avoid reporting it,” says Suvodeep Rakshit, senior economist at Kotak Institutional equities.

Various governments have talked about the need to widen the tax base but none has shown the political courage to tax farm income. One proposal that got talked about a few years ago was to abolish income tax altogether and raise the incidence of indirect tax. Critics were quick to point out the regressive nature of indirect taxes.

It’s a vexed problem and there are no easy solutions.

Image: People waiting in line to submit their income-tax returns. Photograph: Mansi Thapliyal/Reuters.

Ishan Bakshi
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