Every year, I write a column about GST around this time, that mythical ‘universal goods and services tax’ that’ll apparently alleviate the 12 billion taxes we have now (yes, we have more taxes than people, 12 per person to be precise).
A parliamentary debate is about to begin on GST. But, in principle, there is fundamentally something wrong with GST. It is un-Indian. By virtue of being too simple. An Indian tax can’t be this simple. A universal tax percentage applied on everything so you know how to calculate it is fundamentally wrong. It is giving the power of understanding a tax to the people. It is taking away a fundamental right of Indian taxation: confusion.
The Indian tax system is so complex, so labyrinthine, so woven with webs within webs, that the few bespectacled gentlemen who tried to figure it out are themselves long buried under the weight of those heavy tax books in some audit library of a central tax processing unit.
That leaves us mortals to figure out, ‘Ok, when is service tax due? Ok, four times a year? And filing is twice a year? 14 per cent, no, 15 per cent, no, wait, basically whatever Arun Jaitley says that year? Why do the due dates keep changing? What, I missed it? I didn’t miss it? Let me go to the website. Ok, I’ll have an easier time learning Hungarian. Plus, there’s income tax due, there’s tax deduction at 10 per cent and you pay an additional per cent, but the TDS has to be submitted by the person who paid you or yours won’t match with theirs? So the actual income won’t reflect? Wait, does that mean I’m at the mercy of the honesty of another individual, and if not, it is my tax fault? And you need the right headings for service tax or it won’t be counted? How do I know the right heading is for what? Who’ll help me? Plus, you get deductions, but you are not sure
This is enough to jump out of a window — and I’m not even getting into VAT, which should be called value reduced tax because you have less value once you’ve paid it. Plus excise, plus individual state taxes, luxury tax, entertainment tax, south Indian moustache tax, sleeping peacefully at night tax, Bengali sweets tax, didn’t-tell-your-wife-and-came-to-Goa tax, clean India tax, farmers’ mental happiness tax, mother-in-law irritant tax, enduring Navjot Sidhu jokes tax, etc.
None of this is, of course, explained on any YouTube tutorial. If you type in ‘Indian tax simplified’ on Google, and I kid you not, you get a website that starts off with: “The income-tax law has framed the new concept of furnishing of ‘Statement of financial Transactions’ in Form No 61A (previously called as ‘Annual Information Return’). Basic Provisions: Statement of ‘high value financial transactions’ is required to be furnished under section 285BA of the Income-tax Act, 1961, by ‘specified persons’ in respect of ‘specified transactions’ registered….”
And so on. This is the simplified version. It is clearly easier to stage a coup in Turkey than understand this. And with this sort of English language not spoken or written since judges stopped wearing wigs.
When I see this or try and understand our taxation, two things happen: I am jealous of the older gentlemen who died figuring this out. And second, I can imagine why there is no website for the complicated version. It would just have Instagram photos of accountants who have gone stark raving mad running around the offices of the income-tax department with no clothes on.
This government is trying to sit people down and explain to them why this current system is the work of mad people. They’re going door to door of the opposition, home to home, like Big Basket delivery people, saying, ‘Look, here is a list of people who’ve gone mad trying to figure this out, so the taxes are mad, let’s change it.’
And they’re saying just have one flat tax. The idea is noble, simple, global and logical. Which is why there’s so much resistance.
The point of Indian tax — just like the point of comedy — is the element of surprise. You opening a letter and finding out you have a tax due and you go, ‘What tax is this? I didn’t know this tax existed. I have to pay it? Wait, I’ve already paid it. Why are they saying I haven’t? Is this a different thing?’
To keep you on your toes. Agile. Uncertain. Illiterate. The tax structure is like the comedian, toying with you from the stage, controlling your story. Surprising you when you least expect it. With a gentle heart attack. The only surprise for the average Indian, though, is this: that with 330-plus seats in Parliament, a party can’t pass a Bill unless it convinces an Upper House filled with poets and actors, the nuances of TDS.