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The freebie nation

By Sreelatha Menon
March 04, 2013 16:47 IST
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Despite warnings from a parliamentary panel, the list of tax exemptions in 2012-13 shows a rising trend, writes Sreelatha Menon.

The Union Budget shows the charitable instincts of the government continuing to overwhelm it - though some would call it part inefficiency and part helplessness. The  exemptions given to citizens on the tax they ought to pay have been exceeding the Plan expenditure, and even the total fiscal deficit as it did in 2012-13.

This has prompted criticism from the Left parties and activists, who view it as evidence of the government’s pro- industry and pro- rich leanings.

The personal income tax concessions kept the government poorer by Rs 45,464 crore (Rs 454.64 billion), while the corporate income tax concessions denied it of another Rs 68,007 crore (Rs 680.07 billion) in 2011-12. The bulk of the concessions and exemptions of Rs 573,627 crore (Rs 5,736.27 billion) are in excise and Custom duties under indirect taxes.

The largest chunk of concessions in Customs duty goes to gold and diamond, making a total share of 20.5 per cent of the total revenue foregone in Custom duties. This is followed by crude oil and mineral oils comprising 19.5 per cent and machinery 12 per cent. The Custom duty exemptions comprise Rs 253,967 crore (Rs 2,539.67 billion) of the revenue foregone.

The next big chunk comes from excise duty exemptions - a total of Rs 206,188 crore (Rs 2,061.88 billion).

Critics agree that some exemptions serve a social cause as in cases of oil and medicines. But some are without rationale, says Subrat Das, executive director of the Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability, citing the example of  duty exemptions in gold imports. The purpose is to help gold  exports and earn revenue, but while only a fraction of the gold is exported, the  concessions are for the entire imported lot, he says.

It is a fact that the exemptions have been increasing each year (from Rs 459,705 crore (Rs 4597.05 billion) in 2010-11 to Rs 5,33,582 crore and Rs 573,626 crore in the following years) and what is being targeted most, especially by critics in the civil society, are the exemptions given to the industry in terms of direct and indirect taxes.

How much concessions in gold and diamond jewellery help the common man, asks Umesh Babu, a Budget analyst for Delhi Forum, a civil society group.

What makes these concessions look rather odd is a comparison with what the government then goes on to offer to industries that employ the largest number of people like agriculture, handloom sector and, say, fisheries. The Budget, for instance, has ignored the demands for universal pension. Aruna Roy, member of the National Advisory Council, is leading post-Budget protests in Delhi on this issue.

Handloom sector, which employs 4.3 million people and supports their families, had allocations slashed this time. Four of its schemes in the textile ministry were simply denied funds. Fish workers are upset with the measly funds allocated to the sector.

The civil society is not alone in criticising the size of the revenue foregone. The Standing Committee on Finance in March last year noted with concern its increasing size. “The committee notes with concern that revenue foregone has increased from Rs 4,59,715 crore in 2010-11 to Rs 5,29,432 crore in 2011-12. Whereas the revenue foregone in case of corporate tax has decreased during the years 2009-10 to 2011-12, it has shown increase in case of personal income tax, excise duty and Customs duty.” A review of these exemptions  may leave the government with more to offer the needy in society.

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Sreelatha Menon
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