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Why India can't do away with taxes

June 10, 2014 15:08 IST

Why India can't do away with taxes

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Puran Singh and Nupur Pavan Bang

Countries like the Bahamas, Bahrain and Cayman Islands do not charge tax on personal income of individuals. But, all of them mandate a social security tax ranging between 4-9 per cent. 

The idea of no taxes has certainly brought a spark in the eyes of middle class Indians in the last couple of months as Prime Minister Narendra Modi mulled reforming the tax system by abolishing direct taxes (income, excise and sales) during his election campaign.

The very prospect of spending the spring doing better things than worrying about the optimal amount of savings to save income tax is thrilling.

Particularly, after a year of high inflation that put many holes in the pocket of middle class, the idea of doing away with taxes seems to be a magnificent idea.

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Image: India's middle class expect tax relief from the upcoming budget.
Photographs: Jitendra Prakash/Reuters

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The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) later clarified that they did not mean abolition of direct taxes.

They are really pitching for major reforms in the 'taxation regime' in its current form in India.

The statements however have opened up a Pandora's Box over the merits and demerits of a no-direct taxes regime for India.

Half of the Indian government revenues in a year come by way of tax collection. (See graph for tax revenue break-up for 2013-14 in India)

Of this half, one third comes as corporate taxes and remaining two third by way of indirect taxes and taxes on personal incomes.

Figure 1: Break up of Tax Revenue to Government of India (Assessment Year 2013-14)

Source:Income Tax Department, Government of India

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Image: Half of the Indian government revenues in a year come by way of tax collection.
Photographs: Jayanta Shaw/Reuters

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Why India can't do away with taxes

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This is a huge chunk of government revenue. So there has to be a recovery plan for this forgone revenue.

As an alternate to the present taxation system, Banking Transaction Tax (BTT) is being proposed under which a flat per cent will be charged whenever an amount is credited to a bank account.

Under this system, it is argued, the government will generate more revenue than the present taxation system, the problem of tax evasion and black money will be solved, and an easier way to collect taxes will be devised.

This already attracted opposition from within for BJP earlier.

Senior party leaders like Arun Jaitley and Yashwant Sinha had opposed the proposal as it shifts the tax base to the entire population which has a bank account.

In addition to middle and high-income class, low-income class would also be subject to BTT. 

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Image: Finance Minister Arun Jaitley
Photographs: Reuters

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Also, the implementation of BTT would essentially mean that all transactions be done electronically.

Let us not forget the level of financial inclusion in India.

India has 10 commercial bank branches per 100,000 adults and 7.29 ATMs per 100,000 adults.

Less than 60 per cent of total households in India have access to banking services. Implementing BTT would mean leaving out the balance 40 per cent of the households which need not necessarily comprise of poor people.

Even if we take the case of only personal income tax being abolished, it will lead to giving up 10 per cent of the total government revenue.

If no income tax were collected in the current fiscal year 2013-14, the fiscal deficit will widen from an estimated figure of 4.8 per cent to 6.9 per cent.

This will have to be sourced from somewhere else, mainly by increasing indirect taxes and excise duty of some goods.

Therefore, the common man is going to pay taxes one way or the other.

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Image: India has 10 commercial bank branches per 100,000 adults and 7.29 ATMs per 100,000 adults.
Photographs: Mukesh Gupta/Reuters
Tags: BTT , India

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Why India can't do away with taxes

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Now, let us also take a look at the countries which do not have taxes. According to a survey of 114 countries by KPMG in 2012, ten countries didn’t charge any income tax. These countries are:

Table 1: Countries with no tax on personal income and indirect taxes
  Country  Major Economic Activities
  Bahamas  Tourism contributes 60% to GDP
  Bahrain     Petroleum and refining accounts for 60% of export, 70% of government revenue, and 11% of GDP
  Bermuda     International business and financial services contributes largely to GDP
  Brunei     Oil and gas production constitutes 90% of exports and 60% of GDP
  Cayman Islands     Tourism constitutes 70% of GDP
  Kuwait     Petroleum constitutes 95% of export revenues, and 95% of government revenue, and 50% of GDP
  Qatar     Oil and gas constitutes 85% of export revenue, 70% of government revenues, and 50% of GDP
  Oman     Relies on oil production and refining
  Saudi Arabia     Petroleum constitutes and 90% of export revenues,  80% of government revenues, and 45% of GDP
 UAE    Oil and gas output contributes 25% to GDP

(Source: CIA World Factbook, Various articles)

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Image: A station attendant fills up a car at petrol station in Jeddah.
Photographs: Susan Baaghil/Reuters

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Most of these countries belong to the Middle East and are rich in oil and gas resources, while remaining depend on tourism and international business.

Another common feature of these countries is that most of them have monarchy as a system of governance.

As regard taxes, Bahamas, Bahrain, Bermuda, and Cayman Islands do not even have taxes for corporate income.

While these countries do not charge tax on personal income of individuals, all of them mandate a social security tax ranging between 4-9 percent. Employers are also made to contribute in certain proportion towards a pension scheme for the employees.

However, none of these countries is comparable to India.

Nine out of these ten countries have population less than 1 per cent of that of India (Saudi Arabia excluded). Seven of these countries have land area less than 1 per cent of that of India (Saudi Arabia, Oman and UAE excluded).

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Image: Tourism and international business contribute to the GDP of Cayman Islands.
Photographs: Gary Hershorn/Reuters

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Not only demographics, but India differs from these countries on major economic indicators (Figure 2).

Due to their smaller population base and rich natural resources, these countries have per capita GDP which is manifold of that of India.

On the other hand, India, being the fourth largest economy in the world in terms of GDP and second largest in term of population, has to deal with high inflation and budget deficit which are at convenient levels in most of these countries.

With a large economy, very low per capita income, high inflation and budget deficit, India can’t possibly copy the taxation system of these small countries that rely on natural resources for government revenue and are among richest countries in the world.

                Figure 2: Economic Indicators of Zero Tax countries and India
                                                           (2012)

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Image: India has to deal with high inflation and budget deficit.
Photographs: Ajay Verma/Reuters

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Among these countries, many are facing problem of sourcing funds already.

Qatar was considering introducing a Value Added Tax system to increase the government earnings. Kuwait was warned by International Monetary Fund in 2012 for possible shortage of public finances and had suggested introduction of direct

Bahrain was also facing problems with public finances in 2012 as increase in wages and public spending during the year had led to shortage in available funds.

It seems that the spark in the eyes of common man has to fade as of now for abolition of taxes in India will need a lot more thinking before it can be sustainably implemented.

Till then, all eyes are on Mr. Arun Jaitley!


Puran Singh is Member Faculty at Bits Pilani, Goa Campus, and Nupur Pavan Bang is Head-Analytics, Insurance Information Bureau of India The views expressed here are personal


Image: Protesters stand at the base of the Pearl Roundabout in the Bahraini capital of Manama, February 15, 2011.
Photographs: Hamad I Mohammed/Reuters

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