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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

How to build your entrepreneurial mindset today

MD Staff

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An entrepreneurial mindset is a way of life. Even if you aren’t starting your own business, an entrepreneurial mindset teaches you that no problem is insurmountable: you can overcome challenges through perseverance and resilience.

Here are five things you can remember to build an entrepreneurial mindset today. If you’re aged between 18-30, why not start by applying to be a Young Champion of the Earth in 2019? Stay tuned—the competition is opening soon!

Transform problems into opportunities

There are so many clues in everyday life. Is there anything that you experience daily that frustrates you? Perhaps it is the prominence of unsustainable materials in your local shop and restaurants, such as plastic straws or unnecessary food packaging? Often, alternatives to problems do exist, but no one has thought of connecting them in specific circumstances. A good example is supplying restaurants and bars with paper straws. Entrepreneurial mindsets apply a lens which identifies problems not as negative issues but as opportunities to be solved, towards creating value in our economy.

Dare to dream and believe in yourself

If you can dream it and believe it, you are halfway there. How big you can dream is a component of your potential for success. Everyone has ideas—but daring to dream big, and then believing in yourself to apply an entrepreneurial mindset and bring them to reality, takes effort. This year, why not push yourself to think creatively? You could come up with a problem once a week, and each week, come up with one matching solution, for example. The key is to think outside the box, to think of a problem as a potential solution.

Know yourself and discover what you are passionate about

Solving problems, especially those associated with the environment, can be daunting. You will constantly be faced with challenges in your journey to change the world. Some environmental challenges feel so large—like those brought about by climate change. But helping to break down large issues into smaller ones which everyone can take steps to solve, is part of the entrepreneurial journey. Remember that you are capable. Find problems that you are passionate about solving and connect with others passionate about solving them too. This will help you through the tough times to stay motivated.

Go for it and don’t take no for an answer

We all have the foundations of an entrepreneurial mindset. We can all identify problems and think up ideas about how to solve them. Being an entrepreneur pushes you to go out there and take actions to achieve them. Often, this process forces you to think through a specific problem in more detail. It helps you to truly understand pathways towards a solution which others might not have thought about. An idea does not have application in the real world if it is not hammered out in real situations. Part of being an entrepreneur requires following this process, identifying real experiences which can be made better or more efficient, and talking with other people who experience similar challenges to find solutions. Using the resources you have at your disposal will force you to be creative. Keep improving your solution. As you go on, you will eventually gain traction and interest. From there, the possibilities are endless.

Learn, embrace uncertainty and accept failure

Eric Ries from the lean startup says that entrepreneurship is “management under conditions of extreme uncertainty”. Forging your own path to solve a problem that no one has solved before is scary—things change constantly. There will be many obstacles and there will be failure. But an entrepreneurial mindset teaches you that failures are opportunities to learn in disguise. An entrepreneurial mindset embraces uncertainty and learning, to leverage the opportunities that emerge from the space between them.

UN Environment

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Economy

Iran’s oil market facing the new sanctions era: What to expect

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After an expected hiatus in Iran’s oil exports to some of the country’s main customers following the reimposition of the US sanctions, once again the country’s old buyers are coming back to take advantage of the 180-day window which has been presented by the waivers granted in November.

Although it took some of these buyers more than a month to make necessary arrangements or to contemplate on the matter, it seems that finally the convenience of buying oil from Iran has outweighed the skepticism overshadowing Iranian oil industry.

With the customers coming back everything was seemed to be, once again, in favor of Iran’s oil industry, however the US government’s disappointing comments last weekend could change all the equations for Iran’s oil market in the months to come.

“The United States is not looking to grant more waivers for Iranian oil imports after the reimposition of US sanctions.” Brian Hook, the US special representative for Iran, told an industry conference in the United Arab Emirates capital Abu Dhabi.

Considering this new stand, the immediate question which comes to mind is what would become Iran’s oil market after the 180-day period is over? To answer this question two main aspects should be taken into account, one is the consideration of Iran’s ability to bypass the sanctions and the second is the possibility of Iranian oil customers being pushed away in the wake of difficulties resulted from the sanctions.

Iran’s capabilities

Even though at first the markets were almost certain about the severe impact of Trump’s plans on Iranian oil industry, but the surprising decision on granting eight countries waivers to continue buying Iranian oil significantly mitigated the harsh outlook.

Now, nearly three months after the reimpostion of the US sanctions on Iran, the market has witnessed that the Iranian oil exports are not plunged as much as expected.

Although due to the confidentiality of Iran’s crude oil sales data, especially in the sanctions era, there is not an exact report for the level of the country’s oil exports in recent months, however based on the estimations presented by institutes which track Iranian oil vessels, the country’s oil exports stood at near 1.1 to 1.3 million barrels per day in November and December.

Furthermore, considering the exempted countries which are going to resume their oil purchasers from January, and the new approaches which Iran is taking to sell its oil like offering oil at energy exchanges or finding new customers, the country can definitely maintain an even higher level of exports in the months to come.

According to a FGE report, Iran will ship 1.08 million barrels per day in January and exports 1.115 million barrels per day in February.

We should not also forget Iran’s experience in bypassing sanctions to sale its oil. As I mentioned before, Iran has acquired certain ways to bypass sanctions and sell its oil even during the sanctions.

Iranian oil buyers

Nearly two months after the US granted eight countries waivers to continue purchasing oil from Iran, recently some of the Asian buyers have signaled willingness for resuming oil imports from the country.

China, India and South Korea have placed orders for loadings in January or February and Japanese refineries have also expressed hope to resume shipping in Iranian oil as from late January provided that some final clearance and paperwork were made.

As reported by S&P Global, the presidents of Japan’s JXTG Holdings and Cosmo Oil stated that they aim to load Iranian barrels at the end of January upon making some final clearances.

“Cosmo Oil aims to load around 1.8 million barrels of Iranian crude at the end of this month” the report read.

Last week, head of South Korea’s SK Innovation, which owns South Korea’s biggest oil refiner SK Energy also told Reuters that South Korean oil buyers are expected to restart Iranian oil imports in late January or early February.

India’s Ministry of External Affairs has also stated recently that the Asian country will continue importing Iranian oil. According to data provided by FACTS Global Energy Group (FGE), four Indian refineries namely, Indian Oil, Bharat Petroleum, HMEL and HPCL have placed orders for 321,000 barrels of Iranian oil in February.

Regarding Greece, Italy, and Taiwan which were exempted from the US sanctions, no news has been officially out since November.

Even though Europe opposed Trump’s actions, and have reassured Iran’s government that they want the nuclear deal to continue, refiners in the green continent have had little choice but to comply with sanctions. The US can cut off access to their financial system for any company judged to be doing business with Iran.

The customer preferences

With all that said, there are still other considerations which should be taken into account to have a rather clear view of what to expect for the future of Iranian oil.

The fact that it took near two months for some of the Asian buyers of Iranian oil to make necessary arrangements to come back to Iran’s market, is an indication of the hardships that the customers of Iranian oil will be facing in trade with Iran.

The heavy bureaucratic process which the exempted countries have to go through in order to buy Iranian oil, could push some of the more cautious customers like Japan and even South Korea away from Iran.

Most Asian customers of Iranian oil are very sensitive and conservative in their relations with the United States, and this is likely to be a barrier in the way of their energy relations with Iran.

Japan is a clear example of this situation; despite being granted sanction waiver the Japanese refineries have conditioned the resumption of their purchases upon “making some final clearances”.

Regarding Iranian oil buyers’ future decisions, yet another fact that should be taken into account is the reality that with Saudi Arabia, Russia and US producing almost at their peak, and with prices hovering near $60 there is currently a lot of cheap oil in the market.

In such a market, it is natural that some of the Iranian oil customers prefer to purchase their oil from other oil suppliers instead of exposing themselves to the consequences of breaching the US sanctions.

So in the end, it all comes to the incentives which Iranian government is willing to provide to make its oil attractive enough to worth the risk.

It seems that the country has taken some steps in this regard, since earlier this month, the Iranian Deputy Oil Minister for International Affairs and Trading Amir-Hossein Zamaninia said despite the US. sanctions more oil buyers have approached the country for negotiations.

“Despite US pressures on Iranian oil market, the number of potential buyers of Iranian oil has significantly increased due to a competitive market, greed and pursuit of more profit.” Zamaninia said.

Mentioning “pursuit of more profit” indicates that Iran is probably going to provide its customers with remarkable discounts or provide them with long-term payment plans which considering the current situation in the market seems to be the best decision at the moment.

First published in our partner MNA

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Iran: Currency reconversion not a turning point in economic reformation

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One of Iran’s main economic policies, under the framework of the sixth five-year development plan, is modification of banking system and reformation of monetary policies, moving forward toward which the Rouhani administration put forward the plan to shift the national currency from Rial to Toman earlier in December 2016 by eliminating specific number of zeroes.

However, the administration decided to postpone implementation of currency reconversion policy in 2016 due to some reasons including the expressed concerns about the time unfitting economic conditions which would ignite inflation and economic instability.

The policy basically seeks to facilitate monetary transactions among the Iranians and match the currency being transcribed in official documents and banking bills (rial) with the one utilized in real daily lives of Iranians (toman). Rial has practically been replaced by Toman in daily transactions as the result of the cumulative inflation over the recent years.

On Saturday, the Central Bank of Iran (CBI) submitted the bill on lopping off four zeroes of the national currency to the cabinet, the act which drew public attention to the issue again, forming a chorus of criticism and speculations.

Through its proposed bill, the CBI seems primarily able to re-empower the depreciated national currency, tangibly decrease the ever-increasing liquidity volume, and make a nominal reduction in prices of goods and services in the country.

The most remarkable achievements of implementing the bill, however, would be a psychological one among the society.  Shifting from rial, the free market exchange rate of which is presently about 110,000 against the U.S. dollar, by cutting four zeroes to toman may cover the psychological aspects of the inflationary impacts of rial devaluation, which has unprecedentedly increased prices in Iran. It is said to be able to recover national currency’s value against U.S. dollar to some extent and cool down the inflated prices, as well.

Omitting zeroes from the national currency would surely facilitate calculations and money transfers in daily transactions and would seemingly retaliate for the sharp recent rial devaluation but it should not be expected to improve Iranians purchasing power at all.

It would not have any specific impact on economic indices, inflation, investments, job creation or demand and supply, either.

As a matter of fact, economic stability and single-digit inflation rate are the most significant prerequisites of implementing currency reconversion while Iran is experiencing none of the named factors.

Currency reconversion per se would have an inflationary effect. To curb its inflationary impact, it must be done simultaneous with taking contractionary measures and modifications in monetary policies.

In addition, printing new banknotes and injecting them to the market would impose an amount of costs on the shoulder of the central bank.

Addressing the issue in an interview with the Tehran Times, the Iranian economist and President of Iran World Trade Center Mohammad Reza Sabzalipour said that “the government aims to hit several targets with one shot.”

“It seeks to control money and liquidity volume in the society i.e. cutting four zeroes would change the present 17 quadrillion rials (about $404 billion) of liquidity down to 1.7 trillion rials (about $40.4 million) overnight,” he explained, “but the zeroes will incrementally come back and liquidity will be increased over time, in case CBI continues printing fiat money.”

“The act would appease the public opinion just for a short time when they see the price numbers of the goods and services are decreased but after a while when their income also comes with lower zeroes, they will find out that what has happened has not improved their commonwealth,” he added.

“There is no reason for us to consider a national currency with less zeroes a more valuable one,” Sabzalipour said, “having a strong economy is not necessary related to having a national currency with low number of zeroes but to positive trade balance and high quality of the nation’s livelihood.”

“The decided monetary reconversion is mere a political and a psychological move,” he underscored.

What the government is getting prepared to do should not be expected as a revolutionary step in Iran’s economic and banking reformations, that would bring the nation a better livelihood and a more prosperous economy.

It is a postponed measure that has not been implemented in previous years due to lack of proper economic conditions and it is being done under the circumstances that the country is experiencing the toughest economic conditions in its history thanks to the U.S.-led draconian sanctions and when a rampant inflation rate is expected for the upcoming Iranian year.

The costly currency reconversion would, for sure, facilitate money transfer and calculations in daily transactions and also reduce the volume of exchanged paper money and etc., but its effect would be neutralized and the omitted zeroes would snap back one after the other in the long-run, in case of monetary mismanagement or any other unpredicted international, political or economic event which would threaten the economy.

First published in our partner Tehran Times

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