The Narendra Modi government has decided to withdraw their plan to tax the corpus accumulated by investing in the Employees’ Provident Fund(EPF). As the finance minister Arun Jaitley said in the Lok Sabha today: “In view of representations received, the government would like to do a comprehensive review of this proposal and therefore I withdraw the proposal.”
This is a sensible decision to withdraw what was basically a very stupid idea at multiple levels.
a) The finance minister Arun Jaitley in his budget speech had said that only 40% of the corpus accumulated by investing in EPF would be tax free. This would apply on investments made after April 1, 2016.
The entire 100% accumulated corpus could be made tax free by investing 60% of the corpus in annuities. Annuities are essentially policies sold by insurance companies which can be used to generate a regular income.
The trouble is that most annuities in India give a return of around 5-7%. Given this, they remain a bad way to invest a large corpus. Even investing in a long term fixed deposit can give you a better return.
Some savings bank accounts also pay more than the returns that can be generated by investing in annuities. The annuities in their current are essentially nothing but a rip-off and anyone in their right mind would stay away from investing in them.
Then there is the Senior Citizens Savings Scheme, which allows a senior citizen to invest up to Rs 15 lakh. The scheme pays an interest of 9.3%per year. Given that better returns are available elsewhere, why force people to invest 60% of their provident fund corpus into annuities paying 5-7% per year.
b) Also, the change applied only to private sector employees with a salary of greater than Rs 15,000. This meant that the government employees investing in the General Provident Fund (GPF) or employees of public sector companies investing in other recognised provident funds, could withdraw 100% of their accumulated corpus and need not have paid any income tax on it.
Why was the change proposed only for private sector employees? Why was this distinction made on the basis of the employer? If the idea was to tax, the tax should have applied to everyone and not just the private sector employees.
In the way things had been proposed, a private sector employee making Rs 16,000 per month would have had to pay a tax on the accumulated corpus. A government employee need not have done anything like that. How is that fair and equitable?
c) The government has defended this move on the logic of moving towards a “pensioned society”. As the clarification issued by the ministry of finance a few days back pointed out: “The purpose of this reform of making the change in tax regime is to encourage more number of private sector employees to go for pension security after retirement instead of withdrawing the entire money from the Provident Fund Account.”
Why was only the private sector encouraged to move towards a pensioned society? Also, what about those people who are earning less than Rs 15,000 per month. Their need for a regular income after retirement is even greater than those making more money.
d) Also, why make only EPF and other recognised provident funds taxable at maturity. Why leave out the Public Provident Fund? Shouldn’t self-employed professionals who invest in PPF to possibly accumulate a retirement corpus, also be encouraged to become a part of the pensioned society?
e) The government also planned to tax the principal amount invested in the EPF. How fair is this? While calculating capital gains for investments made in stocks or real estate, the principal amount is not included. Also, investments made in real estate and debt mutual funds get indexation benefits, where the impact of inflation is taken into account while calculating the cost of purchasing the asset. This brings down the capital gains on which income tax is paid.
Further, there is no tax on long-term capital gains made on stocks and equity mutual funds. Taking all this into account, how fair was it to decide to tax EPF? Why leave out the investing modes of the rich and decide to tax the middle class EPF?
f) Further, it needs to be realised that different people have different needs. As Jaitley said in the Lok Sabha today: “”Employees should have the choice of where to invest. Theoretically such freedom is desirable, but it is important the government to achieve policy objective by instrumentality of taxation. In the present form, the policy objective is not to get more revenue but to encourage people to join the pension scheme.”
For that to happen there are so many other things that need to be set right. People use their retirement corpus for various things. They use the money to get their children married, educated and so on. While the government may look at this as something that shouldn’t be done but at times there is no option.
Sometimes emergency medical costs are also met out of withdrawing out of the corpus accumulated by investing in the EPF. In a country where there is almost no insurance for the old, how fair is to deny them access to the EPF corpus by deciding to tax it?
What all these points clearly tell us is that the Modi government clearly introduced the idea of taxing the EPF corpus in a hurry. There is clearly more thinking needed on it. Also, several things need to change before such a tax is introduced. And these changes are not going to happen any time soon.
(Vivek Kaul is the author of the Easy Money trilogy. He tweets @kaul_vivek)
The column originally appeared on Firstpost on March 8, 2016