Over the last two months, the centre and over 15 states have passed laws to levy the Goods and Services Tax (GST). Under these laws, tax rates recommended by the GST Council will be notified by the government. The Council met in Srinagar last week to approve rates for various items. Following this decision, the government has indicated that it may invoke provisions under the GST laws to monitor prices of goods and services. This will be done by setting up an anti-profiteering authority to ensure that reduction in tax rates under GST results in a fall in prices of goods and services. In this context, we look at the rates approved by the GST Council, and the role of the proposed authority to ensure that prices of various items do not increase under GST.
Q. What are the tax rates that have been approved by the Council?
The Council has classified various items under five different tax rates: (i) 5%, (ii) 12%, (iii) 18%, (iv) 28%, and (v) 28% with an additional GST compensation cess (see Table 1).,, While tax rates for most of the goods and services have been approved by the Council, rates for some remaining items such as biscuits, textiles, footwear, and precious metals are expected to be decided in its next meeting on June 3, 2017.
Table 1: Tax rates for goods and services as approved by the GST Council
|5%||12%||18%||28%||28% + Cess|
Source: GST Council Press Release, Central Board for Excise and Customs.
Q. Will GST apply on all goods and services?
No, certain items such as alcohol for human consumption, and petroleum products such as petrol, diesel and natural gas will be exempt under GST. In addition to these, the GST Council has also classified certain items under the 0% tax rate, implying that GST will not be levied on them. This list includes items of daily use such as wheat, rice, milk, eggs, fresh vegetables, meat and fish. Some services such as education and healthcare will also be exempt under GST.
Q. How will GST impact prices of goods and services?
GST subsumes various indirect taxes and seeks to reduce cascading of taxes (tax on tax). With greater efficiency in the supply of products, enhanced flow of tax credits, removal of border check posts, and changes in tax rates, prices of goods and services may come down.,, Mr Arun Jaitley recently stated that the Council has classified several items under lower tax rates, when compared to the current system.
However, since some tax rates such as VAT currently vary across states, the real impact of GST rates on prices may become clear only after its roll-out. For example, at present VAT rates on smart phones range between 5-15% across states. Under GST they will be taxed at 12%. As a result while phones may become marginally cheaper in some states, their prices may go up in some others.
Q. What happens if tax rates come down but companies don’t reduce prices?
Few people such as the Union Revenue Secretary and Finance Ministers of Kerala and Jammu and Kashmir have expressed concerns that companies may not lower their prices despite a fall in tax rates, in order to increase their profits. The Revenue Secretary also stated that the government had received reports of few businesses increasing their product prices in anticipation of GST.
To take care of such cases, the GST laws contain a provision which allows the centre to constitute an anti-profiteering authority. The authority will ensure that a reduction in tax rates under GST is passed on to the consumers. Specific powers and functions of the authority will be specified by the GST Council.,
Q. Are there any existing mechanisms to regulate pricing of products?
Various laws have been enacted over the years to control the pricing of essential items, or check for unfair market practices. For example, the Essential Commodities Act, 1955 controls the price of certain necessary items such as medicines, food items and fertilisers.
Parliament has also created statutory authorities like the Competition Commission of India to check against unfair trade practices such as cartelisation by businesses to inflate prices of goods. Regulators, such as the National Pharmaceutical Pricing Authority, are also responsible for regulating prices for items in their sectors.
Q. Could there be some challenges in implementing this mechanism?
To fulfil its mandate, the anti-profiteering authority could get involved in determining prices of various items. This may even require going through the balance sheets and finances of various companies. Some argue that this is against the idea of prices being determined by market forces of demand and supply.
Another aspect to consider here is that the price of items is dependent on a combination of factors, in addition to applicable taxes. These include the cost of raw material, technology used by businesses, distribution channels, or competition in the market.
Imagine a case where the GST rate on a category of cars has come down from the current levels, but rising global prices of raw material such as steel have forced a manufacturer to increase prices. Given the mandate of the authority to ensure passing of lower tax rates to consumers, will it also consider the impact of rising input costs deciding the price of an item? Since factor costs keep fluctuating, in some cases the authority may find it difficult to evaluate the pricing decision of a business.
Q. Have other countries tried to introduce similar anti-profiteering frameworks?
Some countries such as Malaysia have in the past introduced laws to check if companies were making unreasonably high profits after the roll-out of GST. While the law was supposed to remain in force for a limited period, the deadline has been extended a few times. In Australia, during the roll out of GST in the early 2000s, an existing authority was entrusted with the role of taking action against businesses that unreasonably increased prices. The authority also put in place a strategy to raise consumer awareness about the available recourse in cases of price exploitation.
With rates for various items being approved, and the government considering a mechanism to ensure that any inflationary impact is minimised, the focus now shifts to the implementation of GST. This includes operationalisation of the GST Network, and notification of rules relating to registration under GST and payment of tax. The weeks ahead will be crucial for the authorities and various taxpayers in the country to ensure that GST is successfully rolled out from July 1, 2017.
 After fixing rates, GST Council to now focus on price behaviour of companies, The Hindustan Times, Ma 22, 2017, http://www.hindustantimes.com/business-news/after-fixing-rates-gst-council-to-now-focus-on-price-behaviour-of-companies/story-fRsAFsfEofPxMe2IXnXIMN.html.
 GST Rate Schedule for Goods, Central Board of Excise and Customs, GST Council, May 18, 2017, http://www.cbec.gov.in/resources//htdocs-cbec/gst/chapter-wise-rate-wise-gst-schedule-18.05.2017.pdf.
 GST Compensation Cess Rates for different supplies, GST Council, Central Board of Excise and Customs, May 18, 2017, http://www.cbec.gov.in/resources//htdocs-cbec/gst/gst-compensation-cess-rates-18.05.2017.pdf.
 Schedule of GST Rates for Services as approved by GST Council, GST Council, Central Board of Excise and Customs, May 19, 2017, http://www.cbec.gov.in/resources//htdocs-cbec/gst/Schedule%20of%20GST%20rates%20for%20services.pdf.
 GST rate impact: Here’s how the new tax can carry a greater punch, The Financial Express, May 24, 2017, http://www.financialexpress.com/economy/gst-rate-impact-heres-how-the-new-tax-can-carry-a-greater-punch/682762/.
 “So far, the GST Council has got it right”, The Hindu Business Line, May 22, 2017, http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/opinion/the-gst-council-has-got-it-right/article9709906.ece.
 “GST to cut inflation by 2%, create buoyancy in economy: Hasmukh Adhia”, The Times of India, May 21, 2017, http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/business/india-business/gst-to-cut-inflation-by-2-create-buoyancy-in-economy-hasmukh-adhia/articleshow/58772448.cms.
 GST rate: New tax to reduce prices of most goods, from milk, coal to FMCG goods, The Financial Express, May 19, 2017, http://www.financialexpress.com/economy/gst-rate-new-tax-to-reduce-prices-of-most-goods-from-milk-coal-to-fmcg-goods/675722/.
 “Goods and Services Tax (GST) will lead to lower tax burden in several commodities including packaged cement, Medicaments, Smart phones, and medical devices, including surgical instruments”, Press Information Bureau, Ministry of Finance, May 23, 2017.
 “GST Townhall: Main concern is consumer education, says Adhia”, Live Mint, May 24, 2017.
 The Central Goods and Services Tax Act, 2017, http://www.prsindia.org/uploads/media/GST,%202017/Central%20GST%20Act,%202017.pdf.
 Rajasthan Goods and Services Tax Bill, 2017; Madhya Pradesh Goods and Services Tax Bill, 2017; Uttar Pradesh Goods and Services Tax Bill, 2017; Maharashtra Goods and Services Tax Bill, 2017.
 The Essential Commodities Act, 1955.
 “GST rollout: Anti-profiteering law could be the new face of tax terror”, The Financial Express, May 23, 2017, http://www.financialexpress.com/opinion/gst-rollout-anti-profiteering-law-could-be-the-new-face-of-tax-terror/680850/.
 Price Control Anti-Profiteering Act 2011, Malaysia.
 ACCC oversight of pricing responses to the introduction of the new tax system, Australia Competition and Consumer Commission, January 2003, https://www.accc.gov.au/system/files/GST%20final%20report.pdf.
The Uttarakhand Assembly concluded a two-day session on November 30, 2022. The session was scheduled to be held over five days. In this post we look at the legislative business that was carried out in the Assembly, and the state of state legislatures.
13 Bills were introduced and passed within two days
As per the Session Agenda, a total of 19 Bills were listed for introduction in the span of two days. 13 of these were listed to be discussed and passed on the second day. These included the Uttarakhand Protection of Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Bill, 2022, University of Petroleum and Energy Studies (Amendment), Bill, 2022, and the Uttarakhand Anti-Littering and Anti-Spitting (Amendment) Bill, 2022.
The Assembly had proposed to discuss and pass each Bill (barring two) within five minutes (see Figure 1). Two Bills were allocated 20 minutes each for discussion and passing - the Haridwar Universities Bill, 2022, and the Public Service (Horizontal Reservation for Women) Bill, 2022. As per news reports, the Assembly passed all 13 Bills within these two days (this excludes the Appropriation Bills). This raises the question on the amount of scrutiny that these Bills were subject to, and the quality of such laws when the legislature intends to pass them within mere minutes.
Figure 1: Excerpt of Uttarakhand Assembly's November 2022 Session Agenda
Law making requires deliberation, scrutiny
Our law-making institutions have several tools at their disposal to ensure that before a law is passed, it has been examined thoroughly on various aspects such as constitutionality, clarity, financial and technical capacity of the state to implement provisions, among others. The Ministry/Department piloting a Bill could share a draft of the Bill for public feedback (pre-legislative scrutiny). While Bills get introduced, members may raise issues on constitutionality of the proposed law. Once introduced, Bills could be sent to legislative committees for greater scrutiny. This allows legislators to deliberate upon individual provisions in depth, understand if there may be constitutional challenges or other issues with any provision. This also allows experts and affected stakeholders to weigh in on the provisions, highlight issues, and help strengthen the law.
However, when Bills are introduced and passed within mere minutes, it barely gives legislators the time to go through the provisions and mull over implications, issues, or ways to improve the law for affected parties. It also raises the question of what the intention of the legislature is when passing laws in a hurry without any discussion. Often, such poorly thought laws are also challenged in Courts.
For instance, the Uttarakhand Assembly passed the Uttarakhand Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Bill, 2022 in this session (five minutes had been allocated for the discussion and passing of the Bill). The 2022 Bill amends the 2018 Act which prohibits forceful religious conversions, and provides that conversion through allurement or marriage will be unlawful. The Bill has provisions such as requiring an additional notice to be sent to the District Magistrate (DM) for a conversion, and that reconversion to one’s immediate previous religion will not be considered a conversion. Some of these provisions seem similar to other laws that were passed by states and have been struck down by or have been challenged in Courts. For example, the Madhya Pradesh High Court while examining the Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 2021 noted that providing a notice to the DM for a conversion of religion violates the right to privacy as the right includes the right to remain silent. It extends that understanding to the right to decide on one’s faith. The Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 2006 exempted people who reconvert to their original religion from giving a public notice of such conversion. The Himachal Pradesh High Court had struck down this provision as discriminatory and violative of the right to equality. The Court also noted that the right to change one’s belief cannot be taken away for maintaining public order.
Uttarakhand MLAs may not have had an opportunity to think about how issues flagged by Courts may be addressed in a law that regulates religious conversions.
Most other state Assemblies also pass Bills without adequate scrutiny
In 2021 44% states passed Bills on the day it was introduced or on the next day. Between January 2018 and September 2022, the Gujarat Assembly introduced 92 Bills (excluding Appropriation Bills). 91 of these were passed in the same day as their introduction. In the 2022 Monsoon Session, the Goa Assembly passed 28 Bills in the span of two days. This is in addition to discussion and voting on budgetary allocation to various government departments.
Figure 2: Time taken by state legislatures to pass Bills in 2021
Note: The chart above does not include Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim. A Bill is considered passed within a day if it was passed on the day of introduction or on the next day. For states with bicameral legislatures, bills have to be passed in both Houses. This has been taken into account in the above chart for five states having Legislative Councils, except Bihar (information was not available for Council).
Sources: Assembly websites, E-Gazette of various states and Right to Information requests; PRS.
Occasionally, the time actually spent deliberating upon a Bill is lesser than the allocated time. This may be due to disruptions in the House. The Himachal Pradesh Assembly provides data on the time actually spent discussing Bills. For example, in the August 2022 Session, it spent an average of 12 minutes to discuss and pass 10 Bills. However, the Uttarakhand Assembly allocated only five minutes to discuss each Bill in its November 2022 Session. This indicates the lack of intent of certain state legislatures to improve their functioning.
In the case of Parliament, a significant portion of scrutiny is also carried out by the Department Related Standing Committees, even when Parliament is not in session. In the 14th Lok Sabha (LS), 60% of the Bills introduced were sent to Committees for detailed examination, and in the 15th LS, 71% were sent. These figures have reduced recently – in the 16th LS 27% of the Bills were sent to Committees, and so far in the 17th LS, 13% have been sent. However, across states, sending Bills to Committees for detailed examination is often the exception than the norm. In 2021, less than 10% of the Bills were sent to Committees. None of the Bills passed by the Uttarakhand Assembly had been examined by a committee. States that are an exception here include Kerala which has 14 subject Committees, and Bills are regularly sent to these for examination. However, these Committees are headed by their respective Ministers, which reduces the scope of independent scrutiny that may be undertaken.