Petrol and diesel prices were hiked for the fourth consecutive day on Saturday by 35 paise per litre, pushing the total increase in rates on petrol to Rs 36 per litre and on diesel to Rs 26.58 since early May 2020 when taxes on the two fuels were raised to record levels.
Petrol in Delhi now costs Rs 107.24 a litre and diesel comes for Rs 95.97, according to a price notification of state-owned fuel retailers.
The latest increase that follows the unrelenting hike in international oil prices has pushed pump rates across the country to their highest-ever levels.
While petrol is above Rs 100-a-litre-mark in all major cities, diesel has crossed that level in more than a dozen states.
The total increase in petrol price since May 5, 2020 decision of the government to raise excise duty to record levels now totals Rs 35.98 per litre.
Diesel rates have during this period gone up by Rs 26.58 per litre.
The government had raised excise duty on petrol and diesel to mop up gains that would have otherwise accrued to consumers from international oil prices crashing to as low as $19 per barrel.
While international prices have since recovered to $85, excise duty has remained at Rs 32.9 per litre on petrol and Rs 31.8 on diesel.
Oil Minister Hardeep Singh Puri on Friday equated demand for cutting excise duty to 'axing one's own feet', saying such levies funded government schemes to provide free COVID-19 vaccines, meals and cooking gas to millions amid the pandemic.
"I think this simplistic political narrative we get in India (that), 'prices have gone up, why don't you reduce your taxes'... so every time price goes up due to something else, it says you axe your own feet in the process," he had said late on Friday.
He was asked a question on whether the government would cut taxes, which make up for 54 per cent of the price of petrol and over 48 per cent of diesel, to ease the burden on consumers.
"Yesterday (on October 21) we completed vaccinating one billion (against COVID), we fed 90 crore people for one full year (during the pandemic) providing 3 meals in a day, we did Ujjwala scheme (of providing free cooking gas LPG refill to 8 crore poor beneficiaries). All this and much more with that Rs 32 a litre excise duty (levied by the central government)," he had asserted.
The money collected from tax also goes into building roads, constructing houses for the poor and other social welfare schemes.
"I am not the finance minister therefore it is not an appropriate answer for me to give," he said on demands for cutting taxes.
"That Rs 32 a litre that we collect provides us the ability to provide all these welfare services, including 1 billion vaccines."
The increase in fuel prices has stoked concerns over inflation as diesel is the mainstay fuel used for transporting goods, including agri commodities.
Opposition parties including Congress have been critical of the government over the price hikes and have demanded a reduction in taxes.
Puri had said that while the centre levies specific excise duty on petrol and diesel, which does not change if the oil prices fall to $19 per barrel or rise to $84, state governments levy ad valorem rate of VAT whose incidence goes up with every hike.
He said petrol price was decontrolled in 2010, effectively making it linked to world markets.
Diesel prices were freed from government controls in October 2014 by the Modi government.
Kerala high court, he said, had suggested that the inclusion of petrol and diesel in the Goods and Services Tax (GST) regime be put before the GST Council.
And when the Council considered it at its meeting in Lucknow last month, "the state governments thought otherwise," he said, referring to the panel's decision not to include petrol and diesel in the GST regime which would have meant subsuming central excise and state VAT into one uniform tax.
Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman had after the GST Council meeting stated the panel had unanimously decided to continue to keep petrol and diesel out of the GST regime.
The Council is headed by the Union finance minister and comprises representatives of states and UTs.
Puri had also referred to the Rs 1.34 lakh crore oil bonds the previous Congress-led UPA government had issued.
Though he did not link them to the current fuel prices, the bonds are among the factors that BJP leaders have been blaming for the rise in fuel prices.
Petrol and diesel as well as cooking gas and kerosene were sold at subsidised rates during the previous Congress-led UPA government.
Instead of paying for the subsidy to bring parity between the artificially suppressed retail selling prices and the cost that had soared because of international rates crossing $100 per barrel, the then government issued oil bonds totalling Rs 1.34 lakh crore to the state-owned fuel retailers.
These oil bonds and the interest thereon are being paid now.
Of the Rs 1.34 lakh crore of oil bonds, only Rs 3,500 crore of principal has been paid and the remaining Rs 1.3 lakh crore is due for repayment between this fiscal and 2025-26, according to the finance ministry.
The government has to repay Rs 10,000 crore this fiscal year (2021-22). Another Rs 31,150 crore is due to be repaid in 2023-24, Rs 52,860.17 crore in the following year and Rs 36,913 crore in 2025-26.
However, the collections from the hike in excise duty far exceed the amount due to be paid to oil companies.
Minister of State for Petroleum and Natural Gas Rameswar Teli in July told Parliament that the Union government's tax collections on petrol and diesel jumped by 88 per cent to Rs 3.35 lakh crore in the year to March 31 from Rs 1.78 lakh crore a year back.
Excise collection in pre-pandemic 2018-19 stood at Rs 2.13 lakh crore.
Photograph: Mukesh Gupta/Reuters