How will the tax regime look like in 2017?
Year 2016 will stand out as a year of reckoning insofar as the Indian and global tax policy landscape is concerned. Never before has the tax policy and ease of administration been so high on the political agenda as economies witnessed during the past 24 months.
The G-20- and OECD-led multilateral policy works to combat global harmful tax practices culminated in a broader consensus on an inclusive framework of policy measures that shall find their way into country specific tax rules, as well as more than 3,000 bilateral tax treaties; all of this will come in the next 12 months or so. The July 2016 Ministerial-level Symposium held in China laid the foundation for work on enhancing, pro-growth tax policy.
It is no surprise that India has been at the forefront of this, participating in a majority of global debates for ushering in transparency in tax matters. The transparency there circles around exchanging banking information, avoiding stateless income and strengthening anti-avoidance rules, besides taxing income based on economic substance. The Narendra Modi government’s alacrity in promoting ease of tax administration, a critical component in the ease of doing business index, has set in motion several incremental policy and administrative reforms. It is in this backdrop that the upcoming budget is being looked at as an opportunity for the government to lay down a roadmap for transformative changes. For the record, the budget shall mark many firsts also. To state a few, advancing the budget date by a month is a possible precursor to an overlapping of the financial year with the calendar year; doing away with a separate rail budget shall free up resources for railways reforms; switching from archaic plan/non-plan expenditure to a more contemporary capital-revenue nomenclature will distance the reform agenda from annual political leverage; and finally, burying the five-year plan and ushering in a 15-year vision statement is expected to pave the way for transformational policy changes.
Foremost, a majority of the policy announcements are likely to be woven around reformative changes to the economic architecture to address the post-demonetisation policy framework. This could mean a downward trend in tax rates, focusing on tax administrative reforms and promoting the digitisation of land records. Unveiling a new Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management Act (FRBMA) is likely, creating a sustainable long-term roadmap on fiscal discipline without compromising infrastructure spending. The government would be wary of announcing populist dole-out schemes and instead focus upon the larger objective of containing non-plan, nonproductive capex. In this drive, financial sector reforms hold an important key; a well-coordinated monetary and fiscal policy regime would yield dividends. Pushing its unceasing commitment to GST implementation, the government would do well to flesh out the details resurface of the draft GST legislation, allowing yet again the businesses at least four to six months to calibrate their preparation for a smooth transition. The political logjam on the GST framework has caused implementation uncertainty to resurface yet again. The government must avoid the temptation of carrying out sundry changes to the existing indirect tax rate structure.
Turning to direct tax policies, given the demonetisation move, rationalising income-tax rates, coupled with administrative reforms to ease compliance costs, will feature prominently. The extent of rate cuts could be a matter of speculation, but overarching principles of ‘ease doing of business in India’ and ushering in a competitive tax regime should guide the change with preferential rates for middle-income individuals. On a wider policy front, India is likely to witness a convergence with the emerging global tax policy landscape. A successful negotiation on the OECD’s multilateral instrument by an ad hoc group, where India participated on an equal footing with OECD countries, is intended to implement outcomes from the comprehensive package of Base Erosion & Profit Shifting (BEPS) works endorsed by G20. While the Indian tax administration has in principle indicated its commitment to Multilateral Instrument (MLI) implementation, it will necessitate amendments to the Income-Tax Act to ink Multilateral Convention and set in motion a renegotiation of over 90 tax treaties, with priority to nations that are India’s significant trade and investment partners. The government may also consider it opportune to clarify its stance on mandatory arbitration under the framework of bilateral tax and investment treaties. Ease of tax compliance for honest tax payers, given that the administration is likely to up surveillance for errant tax payers in light of demonetisation impact, shall mean embracing best practices on tax-payer services, empowered ombudsman and discouraging avoidable litigation.
I wish one could crystal-ball the year ahead, but it would fair to say the Indian tax regime is set for total makeover in 12 months from now.