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Oil & Natural Gas Corporation Limited vs. CIT (Supreme Court) (FTS)
July, 27th 2015

S. 44BB vs. 9(1)(vii)/44D: The "pith and substance" test has to be applied to determine the dominant purpose of each agreement. If the dominant purpose is mining, the income is assessable only u/s 44BB and not as "fees for technical services" u/s 9(1)(vii) & 44D

The Supreme Court had to consider the following question: “Whether the amounts paid by the ONGC to the non-resident assessees /foreign companies for providing various services in connection with prospecting, extraction or production of mineral oil is chargeable to tax as “fees for technical services” under Section 44D read with Explanation 2 to Section 9(1)(vii) of the Income Tax Act or will such payments be taxable on a presumptive basis under Section 44BB of the Act”? HELD by the Supreme Court:

(i) The Income Tax Act does not define the expressions “mines” or “minerals”. The said expressions are found defined and explained in the Mines Act, 1952 and the Oil Fields (Development and Regulation) Act 1948. While construing the somewhat pari materia expressions appearing in the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act 1957 regard must be had to the provisions of Entries 53 and 54 of List I and Entry 22 of List II of the 7th Schedule to the Constitution to understand the exclusion of mineral oils from the definition of minerals in Section 3(a) of the 1957 Act. Regard must also be had to the fact that mineral oils is separately defined in Section 3(b) of the 1957 Act to include natural gas and petroleum in respect of which Parliament has exclusive jurisdiction under Entry 53 of List I of the 7th Schedule and had enacted an earlier legislation i.e. Oil Fields (Regulation and Development) Act, 1948. Reading Section 2(j) and 2(jj) of the Mines Act, 1952 which define mines and minerals and the provisions of the Oil Fields (Regulation and Development) Act, 1948 specifically relating to prospecting and exploration of mineral oils, exhaustively referred to earlier, it is abundantly clear that drilling operations for the purpose of production of petroleum would clearly amount to a mining activity or a mining operation. Viewed thus, it is the proximity of the works contemplated under an agreement, executed with a non-resident assessee or a foreign company, with mining activity or mining operations that would be crucial for the determination of the question whether the payments made under such an agreement to the non-resident assessee or the foreign company is to be assessed under Section 44BB or Section 44D of the Act.

(ii) The test of pith and substance of the agreement commends to us as reasonable for acceptance. Equally important is the fact that the CBDT had accepted the said test and had in fact issued a circular as far back as 22.10.1990 to the effect that mining operations and the expressions “mining projects” or “like projects” occurring in Explanation 2 to Section 9(1) of the Act would cover rendering of service like imparting of training and carrying out drilling operations for exploration of and extraction of oil and natural gas and hence payments made under such agreement to a non-resident/foreign company would be chargeable to tax under the provisions of Section 44BB and not Section 44D of the Act. We do not see how any other view can be taken if the works or services mentioned under a particular agreement is directly associated or inextricably connected with prospecting, extraction or production of mineral oil. Keeping in mind the above provision, we have looked into each of the contracts involved in the present group of cases and find that the brief description of the works covered under each of the said contracts as culled out by the appellants and placed before the Court is correct.

(iii) The above facts would indicate that the pith and substance of each of the contracts/agreements is inextricably connected with prospecting, extraction or production of mineral oil. The dominant purpose of each of such agreement is for prospecting, extraction or production of mineral oils though there may be certain ancillary works contemplated thereunder. If that be so, we will have no hesitation in holding that the payments made by ONGC and received by the non-resident assessees or foreign companies under the said contracts is more appropriately assessable under the provisions of Section 44BB and not Section 44D of the Act (Circular No. 1862 dated 22.10.1990 referred)

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