These are challenging times for chit fund operators. A scam involving the Saradha group allegedly conning customers under the guise of a chit fund, has raised serious questions for the industry. With a reported 10,000 chit funds in the country handling over Rs 30,000 crore annually, chit fund proponents maintain that these funds are an important financial tool. The scam has also sparked responses from both the centre and states: the Finance Ministry, Ministry of Corporate Affairs and SEBI have all promised to act and the West Bengal Assembly has passed The West Bengal Protection of Interest of Depositors in Financial Establishments Bill, 2013, with Odisha and Haryana considering similar legislation. What is a chit fund? A chit fund is a type of saving scheme where a specified number of subscribers contribute payments in instalment over a defined period. Each subscriber is entitled to a prize amount determined by lot, auction or tender depending on the nature of the chit fund. Typically the prize amount is the entire pool of contribution minus a discount which is redistributed to subscribers as a dividend. For example, consider an auction-type chit fund with 50 subscribers contributing Rs 100 every month. The monthly pool is Rs 5,000 and this is auctioned out every month. The winning bid, say Rs 1000, would be the discount and be distributed among the subscribers. The winning bidder would then receive Rs 4,000 (Rs 5,000 – 1,000) while the rest of subscribers would receive Rs 20 (1000/50). Winners cannot enter the auction again and will be liable for the monthly subscription as the process is repeated for the duration of the scheme. The company managing the chit fund (foreman) would retain a commission from the prize amount every month. Collectively, the subscribers to a chit fund are referred to as a chit group and a chit fund company may run many such groups. What are the laws governing chit funds? Classifying them as contracts, the Supreme Court has read chit funds as being part of the Concurrent List of the Indian Constitution; hence both the centre and state can frame legislation regarding chit funds. States like Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala had enacted legislation (e.g The Kerala Chitties Act, 1975 and The Tamil Nadu Chit Funds Act, 1961) for regulating chit funds. Chit Funds Act, 1982 In 1982, the Ministry of Finance enacted the Chit Funds Act to regulate the sector. Under the Act, the central government can choose to notify the Act in different states on different dates; if the Act is notified in a state, then the state act would be repealed[i]. States are responsible for notifying rules and have the power to exempt certain chit funds from the provisions of the Act. Last year the central government, notified the Act in Arunachal Pradesh, Gujarat, Haryana, Kerala and Nagaland. Under the Act, all chit funds require previous sanction from the state government. The capital requirement for establishing chit funds is Rs 1 lakh and at least 10% of profits should be transferred to a reserve fund. The amount of discount (i.e. the bid) is capped at 40% of the total chit fund value. States may appoint a Registrar who would be responsible for regulation, inspection and dispute settlement in the sector. Any grievances over decisions made by the Registrar can be subject to appeals directed to the state government. Chit fund managers are required to deposit the entire value of the chit fund (can be done in 50% cash and 50% bank guarantee) with the Registrar for the duration of the chit cycle. Prize Chits and Money Circulation Schemes (Banning) Act, 1978 The Prize Chits and Money Circulation Schemes (Banning) Act, 1978 defines and prohibits any illegal chit fund schemes (e.g. schemes where auction winners are not liable to future payments). Again, the responsibility for enforcing the provisions of this Act lies with the state government. Reports suggest that the government is discussing amendments to this Bill in the wake of the chit fund scam. West Bengal Protection of Interest of Depositors in Financial Establishments Bill, 2013 Last month the West Bengal Assembly passed the West Bengal Protection of Interest of Depositors in Financial Establishments Bill, 2013. This was a direct response to the chit fund scam in West Bengal. While not regulating chit funds directly, the Act regulates and restricts financial establishments to curb any unscrupulous activity with regards to deposits. Chit funds are specifically included under the definition of deposits. The state government will appoint a competent authority to conduct investigations. What is the role of RBI and SEBI? The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) is the regulator for banks and other non banking financial companies (NBFCs) but does not regulate the chit fund business. While chit funds accept deposits, the term ‘deposit’ as defined under the Reserve Bank of India Act, 1934 does not include subscriptions to chits. However the RBI can provide guidance to state governments on regulatory aspects like creating rules or exempting certain chit funds. As the regulator of the securities market, SEBI regulates collective investment schemes. But the SEBI Act, 1992 specifically excludes chit funds from their definition of collective investment schemes. In the recent case with Sarada Group, the SEBI investigation discovered that Sarada were, in effect, operating a collective investment scheme without SEBI’s approval.
"No one can ignore Odisha's demand. It deserves special category status. It is a genuine right," said Odisha Chief Minister, Naveen Patnaik, earlier this month. The Odisha State assembly has passed a resolution requesting special category status and their demands follow Bihar's recent claim for special category status. The concept of a special category state was first introduced in 1969 when the 5th Finance Commission sought to provide certain disadvantaged states with preferential treatment in the form of central assistance and tax breaks. Initially three states Assam, Nagaland and Jammu & Kashmir were granted special status but since then eight more have been included (Arunachal Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Sikkim, Tripura and Uttarakhand). The rationale for special status is that certain states, because of inherent features, have a low resource base and cannot mobilize resources for development. Some of the features required for special status are: (i) hilly and difficult terrain; (ii) low population density or sizeable share of tribal population; (iii) strategic location along borders with neighbouring countries; (iv) economic and infrastructural backwardness; and (v) non-viable nature of state finances. [1. Lok Sabha unstarred question no. 667, 27 Feb, 2013, Ministry of Planning] The decision to grant special category status lies with the National Development Council, composed of the Prime Minster, Union Ministers, Chief Ministers and members of the Planning Commission, who guide and review the work of the Planning Commission. In India, resources can be transferred from the centre to states in many ways (see figure 1). The Finance Commission and the Planning Commission are the two institutions responsible for centre-state financial relations.
Planning Commission and Special Category The Planning Commission allocates funds to states through central assistance for state plans. Central assistance can be broadly split into three components: Normal Central Assistance (NCA), Additional Central Assistance (ACA) and Special Central Assistance. NCA, the main assistance for state plans, is split to favour special category states: the 11 states get 30% of the total assistance while the other states share the remaining 70%. The nature of the assistance also varies for special category states; NCA is split into 90% grants and 10% loans for special category states, while the ratio between grants and loans is 30:70 for other states. For allocation among special category states, there are no explicit criteria for distribution and funds are allocated on the basis of the state's plan size and previous plan expenditures. Allocation between non special category states is determined by the Gadgil Mukherjee formula which gives weight to population (60%), per capita income (25%), fiscal performance (7.5%) and special problems (7.5%). However, as a proportion of total centre-state transfers NCA typically accounts for a relatively small portion (around 5% of total transfers in 2011-12). Special category states also receive specific assistance addressing features like hill areas, tribal sub-plans and border areas. Beyond additional plan resources, special category states can enjoy concessions in excise and customs duties, income tax rates and corporate tax rates as determined by the government. The Planning Commission also allocates funds for ACA (assistance for externally aided projects and other specific project) and funds for Centrally Sponsored Schemes (CSS). State-wise allocation of both ACA and CSS funds are prescribed by the centre. The Finance Commission Planning Commission allocations can be important for states, especially for the functioning of certain schemes, but the most significant centre-state transfer is the distribution of central tax revenues among states. The Finance Commission decides the actual distribution and the current Finance Commission have set aside 32.5% of central tax revenue for states. In 2011-12, this amounted to Rs 2.5 lakh crore (57% of total transfers), making it the largest transfer from the centre to states. In addition, the Finance Commission recommends the principles governing non-plan grants and loans to states. Examples of grants would include funds for disaster relief, maintenance of roads and other state-specific requests. Among states, the distribution of tax revenue and grants is determined through a formula accounting for population (25%), area (10%), fiscal capacity (47.5%) and fiscal discipline (17.5%). Unlike the Planning Commission, the Finance Commission does not distinguish between special and non special category states in its allocation.
Authored by Vishnu Padmanabhan and Priya Soman The Budget speech may have already been scrutinised and the numbers analysed but the Budget process is far from complete. The Constitution requires expenditure from the government’s Consolidated Fund of India to be approved by the Lok Sabha (the Rajya Sabha does not vote, but can suggest changes). After the Finance Minister presents the Union Budget, Parliament holds a general discussion followed by a detailed discussion and vote on Demands for Grants. In the general discussion, the House discusses the Budget as a whole but no motions can be moved and no voting takes place. In the 15th Lok Sabha, the average time spent during the Budget Session on general discussion has been 13 hours 20 minutes so far. Following the general discussion, Parliament breaks for recess while Demands for Grants – the projected expenditure by different ministries - are examined by the relevant Standing Committees of Parliament. This year Parliament is scheduled to break for a month from March 22nd to April 22nd. After the break, the Standing Committees table their reports; the grants are discussed in detail and voted on. Last year, the total time spent on the Union Budget, on both general and detailed discussion was around 32 hours (or 18% of total time in the session), largely in line with the average time spent over the last 10 years (33 hours, 20% of total time). A unique feature of Indian democracy is the separate presentation and discussion for the Railway Budget. Including the Railway Budget the overall time spent on budget discussion last year was around 55 hours (30% of total time in the session).
During the detailed discussion, MPs can call for ‘cut motions’ to reduce the amounts of demands for grants made by a Ministry. This motion can be tabled in three ways: (i) ‘the amount of the demand be reduced to Re.1/’ signifying disapproval of the policies of that ministry; (ii) ‘the amount of the demand be reduced by a specified amount’, an economy cut signifying a disapproval of the amount spent by the ministry and (iii) ‘the amount of the demand be reduced by Rs.100/-', a token cut airing a specific grievance within the policy of the government. However in practice almost all demands for grants are clubbed and voted together (a process called guillotining). In 2012, 92% of demands for grants were guillotined. The grants for Ministries of Commerce and Industry, Health and Family Welfare, Home Affairs and Urban Development were the only grants taken up for discussion. Over the last 10 years, 85% of demands for grants have been voted for without discussion. The most frequently discussed demand for grants come from the Ministry of Home Affairs (discussed in 6 of the last 10 sessions) and the Ministry of Rural Development (5 times). Demand for grants for Defence, the largest spending Ministry, has only been voted after discussion once in the last 10 years.
If the government needs to spend any additional money, it can introduce Supplementary Demands for Grants during the year. However if after the financial year government spending on a service exceeds the amount granted, then an Excess Demand for Grant has to be introduced and passed in the following year. The Budget process concludes with the introduction and passage of the Appropriation Bill authorising the government to spend money from the Consolidated Fund of India. In addition, a Finance Bill, containing the taxation proposals of the government is considered and passed by the Lok Sabha after the Demands for Grants have been voted upon.
After months of discussion, the issue of FDI in retail is being deliberated in the Lok Sabha today. In September 2012, the Cabinet had approved 51% of FDI in multi-brand retail (stores selling more than one brand). Under these regulations, foreign retail giants like Walmart and Tesco can set up shop in India. Discussions on permitting FDI in retail have focused on the effect of FDI on unorganised retailers, farmers and consumers. Earlier, the central government commissioned the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER) to examine the impact of organised retail on unorganised retail. The Standing Committee on Commerce also tabled a report on Foreign and Domestic Investment in the Retail Sector in May, 2009 while the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion (DIPP) released a discussion paper examining FDI in multi-brand retail in July, 2010. Other experts have also made arguments – both in support of, and in opposition to, the move to permit FDI in retail sales. The table below summarises some of these arguments from the perspective of various stakeholders as collated from the above reports examining the issue.
Supporting arguments (source)
Opposing arguments (source)
Reports suggest that the first reactor of the Kudankulam power plant is close to operational. With state discoms struggling, advocates of nuclear power see Kudankulam as a necessary boost to India’s struggling power sector. The Kudankulam power plant will have two reactors. At full capacity, the plant would produce 2 GW of energy, making it India’s largest nuclear plant, and significantly increasing India’s nuclear capacity (currently at 4.8 GW or 2.3% of total capacity). Internationally, nuclear power plants contributed 12.3 % of the world's electricity production in 2011. In terms of number of nuclear reactors, India ranks 6th in the world with 20 nuclear reactors (in seven power stations across five states: Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu). The Kudankulam power station would be Tamil Nadu’s second power station after the Madras Atomic Power Station (MAPS). Tamil Nadu is struggling to meet electricity demand, recently moved the Supreme Court, asking the Centre for more power. Peak demand deficit (the difference between electricity supply and demand at peak periods) in the state was 17.5% in 2011-12. The per capita consumption of electricity in the state was 1,132 kWh in 2009-10, significantly greater than the India average of 779 kWh. Currently, electricity in Tamil Nadu is fueled by a mixture of coal (35% of capacity), renewable sources (42%) and hydro sources (12%). A fully operational Kudankulam reactor would boost Tamil Nadu’s capacity by 6% (including state, private and centrally owned generating entities). The interactive table below provides a state-level breakdown of key power sector indicators. To view data in ascending or descending order, simply click the relevant column heading. (For a detailed overview of the power sector and even more state-wise statistics, see here.) [table id=4 /] Source: Central Electricity Authority; Planning Commission; PRS. Note: capacity for states includes allocated shares in joint and central sector utilities. T&D (transmission and distribution) losses refer to losses in electricity in the process of delivery
Recently, the Kelkar Committee published a roadmap for fiscal consolidation. The report stresses the need and urgency to address India’s fiscal deficit. A high fiscal deficit – the excess of government expenditure over receipts – can be problematic for many reasons. The fiscal deficit is financed by government borrowing; increased borrowing can crowd out funds available for private investment. High government spending can also lead to a rise in price levels. A full PRS summary of the report can be found here. Recent fiscal trends Last year (2011-12), the central government posted a fiscal deficit of 5.8% (of GDP), significantly higher than the targeted 4.6%. This is in stark contrast to five years ago in 2007-08, when after embarking on a path of fiscal consolidation the government’s fiscal deficit had shrunk to a 30 year low of 2.5%. In 2008-09, a combination of the Sixth Pay Commission, farmers’ debt waiver and a crisis-driven stimulus led to the deficit rising to 6% and it has not returned to those levels since. As of August this year, government accounts reveal a fiscal deficit of Rs 3,37,538 crore which is 65.7% of the targeted deficit with seven months to go in the fiscal year. With growth slowing this year, the committee expects tax receipts to fall short of expectations significantly and expenditure to overshoot budget estimates, leaving the economy on the edge of a “fiscal precipice”.
Committee recommendations - expenditure To tackle the deficit on the expenditure side, the committee wants to ease the subsidy burden. Subsidy expenditure, as a percentage of GDP, has crept up in the last two years (see Figure 2) and the committee expects it to reach 2.6% of GDP in 2012-13. In response, the committee calls for an immediate increase in the price of diesel, kerosene and LPG. The committee also recommends phasing out the subsidy on diesel and LPG by 2014-15. Initial reports suggest that the government may not support this phasing out of subsidies.
For the fertiliser subsidy, the committee recommends implementing the Department of Fertilisers proposal of a 10% price increase on urea. Last week , the government raised the price of urea by Rs 50 per tonne (a 0.9% increase). Finally, the committee explains the rising food subsidy expenditure as a mismatch between the issue price and the minimum support price and wants this to be addressed. Committee recommendations - receipts Rising subsidies have not been matched by a significant increase in receipts through taxation: gross tax revenue as a percentage of GDP has remained around 10% of GDP (see Figure 3). The committee seeks to improve collections in both direct and indirect taxes via better tax administration. Over the last decade, income from direct taxes – the tax on income – has emerged as the biggest contributor to the Indian exchequer. The committee feels that the pending Direct Tax Code Bill would result in significant losses and should be reviewed. To boost income from indirect taxes – the tax on goods and services – the committee wants the proposed Goods and Service Tax regime to be implemented as soon as possible.
Increasing disinvestment, the process of selling government stake in public enterprises, is another proposal to boost receipts. India has failed to meet the disinvestment estimate set out in the Budget in the last two years (Figure 4). The committee believes introducing new channels [1. The committee suggests introducing a ‘call option model’. This is a mechanism allowing the government to offer for sale multiple securities over a period of time till disinvestment targets are achieved. Investors would have the option to purchase securities at the cost of a premium. They also propose introducing ‘exchange traded funds’ which would comprise all listed securities of Central Public Sector Enterprises and would provide investors with the benefits of diversification, low cost access and flexibility.] for disinvestment would ensure that disinvestment receipts would meet this year’s target of Rs 30,000 crore.
Taken together, these policy changes, the committee believe would significantly improve India’s fiscal health and boost growth. Their final projections for 2012-13, in both a reform and no reform scenario, and the medium term (2013-14 and 2014-15) are presented in the table below: [table id=2 /]
The issue of the General Anti Avoidance Rule (GAAR) has dominated the news recently and there are fears that GAAR will discourage foreign investment in India. However, tax avoidance can hinder public finance objectives and it is in this context GAAR was introduced in this year’s Budget. Last week, the Finance Minister pushed back the implementation of GAAR by a year. What is GAAR? GAAR was first introduced in the Direct Taxes Code Bill 2010. The original proposal gave the Commissioner of Income Tax the authority to declare any arrangement or transaction by a taxpayer as ‘impermissible’ if he believed the main purpose of the arrangement was to obtain a tax benefit. The 2012-13 Finance Bill (Bill), that was passed by Parliament yesterday, defines ‘impermissible avoidance arrangements’ as an arrangement that satisfies one of four tests. Under these tests, an agreement would be an ‘impermissible avoidance arrangement’ if it (i) creates rights and obligations not normally created between parties dealing at arm’s length, (ii) results in misuse or abuse of provisions of tax laws, (iii) is carried out in a way not normally employed for bona fide purpose or (iv) lacks commercial substance.
As per the Bill, arrangements which lack commercial substance could involve round trip financing, an accommodating party and elements that have the effect of offsetting or cancelling each other. A transaction that disguises the value, location, source, ownership or control of funds would also be deemed to lack commercial substance. The Bill as introduced also presumed that obtaining a tax benefit was the main purpose of an arrangement unless the taxpayer could prove otherwise. Why? GAAR was introduced to address tax avoidance and ensure that those in different tax brackets are taxed the correct amount. In many instances of tax avoidance, arrangements may take place with the sole intention of gaining a tax advantage while complying with the law. This is when the doctrine of ‘substance over form’ may apply. ‘Substance over form’ is where real intention of parties and the purpose of an arrangement is taken into account rather than just the nomenclature of the arrangement. Many countries, like Canada and South Africa, have codified the doctrine of ‘substance over form’ through a GAAR – type ruling. Issues with GAAR A common criticism of GAAR is that it provides discretion and authority to the tax administration which can be misused. The Standing Committee responded to GAAR in their report on the Direct Taxes Code Bill in March, 2012. They suggested that the provisions should ensure that taxpayers entering genuinely valid arrangements are not harassed. They recommended that the onus should be on tax authorities, not the taxpayer, to prove tax avoidance. In addition, the committee suggested an independent body to act as the approving panel to ensure impartiality. They also recommended that the assessing officer be designated in the code to reduce harassment and unwarranted litigation. GAAR Amendments On May 8, 2012 the Finance Minister amended the GAAR provisions following the Standing Committee’s recommendations. The main change was to delay the implementation of GAAR by a year to “provide more time to both taxpayers and the tax administration to address all related issues”. GAAR will now apply on income earned in 2013-14 and thereafter. In addition, the Finance Minister removed the burden upon the taxpayer to prove that the main purpose of an alleged impermissible arrangement was not to obtain tax benefit. These amendments were approved with the passing of the Bill. In his speech, the Finance Minister stated that a Committee had also been formed under the Chairmanship of the Director General of Income Tax. The Committee will suggest rules, guidelines and safeguards for implementation of GAAR. The Committee is expected to submit its recommendations by May 31, 2012 after holding discussions with various stakeholders in the debate.