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Economy

Goods and Services Tax (GST), India: A Dangerous Domino

Saurabh Malkar

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Government loves taxation; the citizens, justifiably, loathe it with a passion. Parting with one’s hard-earned money, which will be pressed towards lofty goals and unfeasible projects, hardly gets people’s cheers.

India is infamous for its Byzantine system of multiple taxes on consumption: value-added tax (VAT), Octroi, cess, excise duties, a hefty customs duty, and sales tax. In 2017, the Modi administration undertook the task to take to consummation a long-standing endeavor to subsume different taxes into a transparent, unevadable, convenient, nationwide, single tax.

And so they did! On July 1, 2017, Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, rolled out the goods and services tax (GST) to replace all existing taxes at the central (federal), state, and local level. The new tax reform, a surrender of taxation powers by the states to the center, promised to mop up leakages in the tax collection under the old system and boost government revenues through collecting taxes at the consumer end, thus, casting a wider net to cover the massive informal economy of India.

The deal was bittersweet, as it led to the states losing autonomy to design their own tax systems, while on the other hand receiving assurances of a steady allocation in the tax revenues collected at the center.

The reception of GST was a mixed bag, with the opposing coalition in the legislature boycotting the rollout ceremony, political pundits and media gurus casting doubts on its success, rumor-mongering on social media, and a state of panic and doom in the minds of the citizenry.

Predictably, Prime Minister Modi, in his usual smug demeanor and insufferably professorial manner of speaking, at the launch event talked up the GST, drawing equivalencies between the tax reform and historic events like the Declaration of Independence and installation of the Constitution. A religious reference was thrown in for good measure.

GST isn’t a panacea for India’s economic ailments. Quite the contrary, it will raise difficulties that could undercut free market principles, choke small-scale enterprises, stifle entrepreneurship, and throw cold water on industrialization in India.

GST subtly affects the feedback mechanism in the political governance of a federal republic like India. As the new tax elbows out scores of made-to-order and customizable tax systems of different states and union territories, it concentrates much of the economic decision-making in the hands of the central government, thus, widening the messaging gap between the citizens and the representatives.

It will be near impossible for the states to influence demand and consumption of goods and services through changing the tax rate. Also, a steady flow of tax revenues from the center to the states will make the latter less cognizant of people’s feedback on public goods, resulting in poor services.

It seems like India’s bureaucratic boffins threw the merits of diversity to the wind, a tenet that is peddled out every once in a while to hold together the fractious society. Diversity in taxation across state lines creates a competitive economic environment in which state heads have to work to attract businesses. For businesses, especially startups, there is a wide range of options to pick from.

States, as a result, function as laboratories where different economic policies play out and the ones that produce a business friendly environment and steady growth are duplicated elsewhere.

A single, centralized tax system undercuts the economic diversity and disables competition and free markets, something that developing nations ought to get hold of, if they are earnest about progress and growth.

Under GST, the definition of small and medium enterprises (SMEs), based on turnover, has been narrowed, thus, expelling many SMEs from the tax benefit cover. SMEs form the dominant share of most OECD economies around the world, where they are responsible for job creation, innovation, and becoming indispensable links in the supply chains of larger firms.

This cannot be any truer for an economy like India, where the informal sector makes for a substantial share of the GDP and employs a large number of semi-skilled and unskilled workers.

Despite being hailed as a transparent and streamlined tax system, the implementation of GST means that employers will have to go through a steep learning curve, trying to learn the ropes of the new system. Not only does this present an opportunity cost (a one-off), it is touted that legal compliance will cost business owners a substantial sum of money, raising overhead costs. While this tradeoff is favorable for big businesses, it is a cause for concern for SMEs.

While Narendra Modi, the darling of the educated youth of India, promised oodles of progress, prosperity, and ‘happy days’; the tax schedule of GST seems to be telling a slightly different, and perhaps, an insidious story.

According to Piruz Khambatta, Chairman at the Indian Industries’ National Committee of Food Processing, per the GST tax schedule, the tax rate on processed (canned and bottled) produce is higher than that on un-branded, loosely-sold fresh produce.

This can have a dis-incentivizing effect on mass-produced, processed food, in turn discouraging industrialization, innovation, and establishment of food hygiene standards. Also, mass produced goods tend to be uniform, cheap, and abundant. An over reliance on goods produced through a non-industrialized informal sector, despite resulting in job creation, could over time, hold back industrialization and technological advancement.

Another example of such glaring incoherency is illustrated by a comparison of tax rates on items listed under serial numbers 24 and 25 of the schedule. In an incredible move, machinery used in agriculture, horticulture, forestry, apiculture, and poultry farming is taxed at 5% and 12%, while miscellaneous items used in Hindu religious ceremonies are tax-free. It’s almost as if religious pandering has taken precedence over mechanization of key sectors of economy.

Without belaboring the above point, it merits noting that low-demand, artisanal, non-mechanized industries like ‘khadi’* are also given a tax break, while mass produced cotton goods are taxed at 5%.

This pandering to religious and anti-colonial, nationalistic sentiments, a classic example of third-world politics, flies in the face of the ‘progress, prosperity, and happy days’ narrative from Modi’s campaign trail.

In essence, unwittingly or otherwise, GST seems to be a potential quagmire, delivering questionable amounts of economically-sound nuggets, but served with generous portions of feel-good, religious nationalism.

‘Good days will surely come.’ Hunker down for turbulence and retrogression.

* a variety of home-made Indian yarn, which during colonial times, symbolized dissidence towards British effort to dump cheap, mass-produced English yarn/thread in Indian markets, while dismantling the domestic yarn industry.

An ex-dentist and a business graduate who is greatly influenced by American conservatism and western values. Having born and brought up in a non-western, third world country, he provides an ‘outside-in’ view on western values. As a budding writer and analyst, he is very much stoked about western culture and looks forward to expound and learn more. Mr. Malkar receives correspondence at saurabh.malkar[at]gmail.com. To read his 140-character commentary on Twitter, follow him at @saurabh_malkar

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Economy

Deeper reforms in Korea will ensure more inclusive and sustainable growth

MD Staff

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Short-term prospects for the Korean economy are good, with an uptick in world trade and fiscal policy driving growth, but productivity remains relatively low and the country faces the most rapid population ageing in the OECD area, according to a new report from the OECD.

The latest OECD Economic Survey of Korea looks at recent economic developments, as well as the challenges to ensure that the benefits are shared by all. The Survey projects growth of about 3% for the 2018-19 period, and lays out an agenda for ensuring broader-based and more inclusive growth going forward.

The Survey, presented in Sejong by the head of the OECD Korea/Japan Desk, Randall Jones, highlights the need for new policies to help the government overhaul the traditional export-led growth model and to promote innovation led by SMEs and start-ups. It discusses reforms to the large business groups (chaebols), to achieve higher productivity and more inclusive growth, and proposes policies to enhance dynamism in SMEs and boost entrepreneurship. It also outlines the key challenges for reaching higher levels of well-being.

“Korea has rebounded after several years of sub-par growth, and the expansion is expected to continue,” Mr Jones said. “However, the traditional economic model of manufacturing and export-led growth is running out of steam. The challenge going forward will be to develop a new growth model that addresses today’s economic and social polarisation and leads to a more sustainable and inclusive economy for all Koreans.”

Despite the important role of the large business groups in Korea’s economic growth, the Survey says that a more balanced economy with larger roles for services and SMEs would promote inclusive and sustainable growth. The Survey suggests that strengthening product market competition, by relaxing barriers to imports and inward foreign direct investment and liberalising product market regulation, would reduce rent-seeking behaviour by large firms. Corporate governance reform is also necessary.

Beyond chaebol reform, the Survey identifies measures that would enhance dynamism and productivity growth in SMEs, including regulatory reforms, better access to credit, changes to the insolvency framework and improvements to the vocational education system.

The Survey proposes a range of potential reforms to boost well-being in Korea, including measures to expand female employment; labour market reforms to break down the segmentation between regular and non-regular workers; policies to reduce elderly poverty; and the use of economic instruments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution.

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Extending people’s working lives could add US$3.5 trillion to OECD GDP in long run

MD Staff

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Extending people’s working lives to reflect the ageing of their populations could release massive untapped value for their economies to the tune of US$3.5 trillion across the OECD as a whole in the long run.

Iceland, New Zealand and Israel are the leaders in boosting employment rates among older workers, setting a model for others to follow, according to the latest research by PwC.

Between 2015 and 2050, it’s estimated that the number of people aged 55 and above in the 35 OECD countries will increase by almost 50% to over 500 million. But how many of these half a billion people will be working?

PwC’s Golden Age Index benchmarks, ranks and analyses the performance of OECD countries in fostering older people’s participation in the workforce through employment and training data. It reveals how large potential economic gains are available if employment rates for those over 55 can be raised to those of the top performers.

Current employment rates for workers aged 55-64 vary dramatically across the OECD, from 84% in Iceland and 78% in New Zealand to 38% in Greece and 34% in Turkey.

For example, increasing the over-55 employment rate to New Zealand levels could deliver a long-run economic boost worth around US$815 billion in the US, US$406 billion in France and US$123 billion in Japan – with the total potential gain across the OECD adding up to around US$3.5 trillion. This economic uplift would be combined with significant social and health benefits from older people leading more active lives and having higher self-worth through continuing to work where they wish to do so.

John Hawksworth, Chief Economist at PwC UK, comments:

“Of course, it’s good news that we’re living longer. But an ageing population is already putting significant financial pressure on health, social care and pension systems, and this will only increase over time. To help offset these higher costs, we think older workers should be encouraged and supported to remain in the workforce for longer. This would increase GDP, consumer spending power and tax revenues, while also helping to improve the health and wellbeing of older people by keeping them mentally and physically active.”

For governments, ways to realise these benefits include reforming pension systems and providing other financial incentives to encourage later retirement – steps that several countries are already prioritising.

Significantly, the top-performing countries on the Index tend to share a number of characteristics, including a labour market that supports flexible working and the implementation of reforms targeted at older workers, such as redesigning jobs to meet physical needs. Successful policy measures include increasing the retirement age, supporting flexible working, improving the flexibility of pensions, and providing further training and support help older workers become ‘digital adopters’.

To help governments take the right actions, PwC has used this year’s update of the Golden Age Index to carry out a rigorous statistical analysis of the underlying drivers of higher employment rates for older workers across 35 OECD countries.

The findings from this analysis include that financial incentives like pension policy and family benefits can influence people’s decision to stay employed, and that longer life expectancy is associated with longer working lives. The study also shows that flexible working and partial retirement options can pay dividends for employers, as can redesign of factories, offices and roles to meet the changing needs and preferences of older workers.

A further area that the latest Golden Age Index examines concerns the implications for older workers of rising use of artificial intelligence (AI) and related automation technologies in the workplace. It finds that these technologies raise both potential opportunities and challenges for the over-55s.

Up to 20% of the existing jobs of older workers could be at risk of automation over the next decade, so retraining and lifelong learning will be critical to enable older workers to take up the many new job opportunities that AI and related technologies will create.

PwC UK Chief Economist John Hawksworth explains: “AI technology can boost economic growth, generate more labour demand and support longer working lives, for example through the use of digital platforms that allow older workers to market their skills more widely. However, our estimates suggest that older workers do face a higher risk of job automation compared to other age groups, with up to 20% of the existing jobs of over-55s at potential risk of automation over the next decade. Measures to support lifetime learning and retraining for older workers will be critical to maximising the gains from these technologies while mitigating the costs.”

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Further reforms needed for a stronger and more integrated Europe

MD Staff

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The European economy is growing robustly, helped by accommodative monetary policy, mildly expansionary fiscal policy and the global acceleration. The current economic expansion should be used to speed up implementation of reforms to the euro area architecture and EU policies that would support greater European integration and ensure stronger, more inclusive long-term growth, according to two new reports from the OECD.

The latest OECD Economic Survey of the European Union and Economic Survey of the Euro Area look at the factors behind the strong recovery, as well as the challenges facing Europe. The Surveys project growth topping 2% for the 2018-19 period, and lay out an agenda for boosting long-term growth and living standards across Europe.

The Surveys, presented in Brussels by OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría, highlight the need for EU budget reform, more efficient cohesion policies to reduce regional divides and further efforts to deepen the single market. The OECD also discusses how completing the banking union, creating a common fiscal support scheme and simplifying fiscal rules would strengthen the euro area by making it more resilient to economic shocks.

“After years of crisis, positive economic momentum has taken hold across Europe,” Mr Gurría said. “Growth continues at a solid pace, and has broadened across sectors and countries. The conditions are right for a new wave of reforms to revive the European project and ensure that the benefits are shared by all.”

The Surveys say that macroeconomic policy must be tailored to support economic expansion while reducing imbalances. Monetary policy should remain accommodative until inflation is durably back to the objective, even as the ECB prepares for a very gradual normalisation of its policy. With an economic expansion under way, governments should reduce debt-to-GDP ratios. Simplified fiscal rules and a stronger focus on expenditure growth should help achieve this objective without derailing the recovery.

Ensuring the stability of the monetary union and enhancing the common currency’s resilience to downturns will be critical to future economic progress. More risk sharing will be necessary. The Survey calls for a European unemployment reinsurance scheme to cope with economic shocks too large to be dealt with solely by national fiscal policies or monetary policy. Reforms to develop the capital markets union along with a rapid reduction of non-performing loans are also important to allow a better functioning of the Economic and Monetary Union.

Additional reforms to complete the banking union are also necessary, in particular the setting up of a common European deposit-insurance scheme and using the European Stability Mechanism as a backstop for the Single Resolution Fund; both reforms would help prevent any future banking crisis developing into a sovereign debt crisis. The introduction of additional capital charges for banks holding high levels of government debt from their own country should occur alongside the creation of a new European safe asset. This would favour the diversification of banks’ exposure to government debt and mitigate negative feedback loops between weak banks and stressed public finances.

Reforms to the EU budget can enhance growth and make it more inclusive. There is scope to increase member states’ contributions, including by reassessing how the European budget is financed, as the current financing does not reflect countries’ ability to pay. The EU Survey suggests that resources to finance growth-enhancing spending, including R&D, be freed up by phasing out production-based payments in the Common Agricultural Policy and better targeting regional policy to lagging regions.

Improving the functioning of the Single Market would boost growth and living standards, the Surveys said. There is scope to ease regulatory burdens and address barriers to trade in services, improve cross-border cooperation in the energy sector through better power system operation and trade, and help member states boost digital skills acquisition.

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