Late last week I was paying the Goods and Services Tax (GST) I had collected on behalf of the government, to the government.
In the process of payment, I made a mistake, which, with the benefit of hindsight I can say was a rather silly one. Basically, the entries for the state GST and integrated GST got interchanged. In the process, I ended up paying more integrated GST than I had to and less state GST than I had to.
Integrated GST is a tax which the seller must collect from the buyer on the inter-state supply of goods and services. State GST and central GST are taxes which the seller must collect from the buyer on the intra-state supply of goods and services.
Let’s understand this through an example. I am based out of Mumbai in the state of Maharashtra. I write a column for a magazine, which is based out of New Delhi. In this case, when I bill the magazine (the buyer), I will raise an invoice with an integrated GST of 18 per cent.
If I write a column for a website (it could even be a magazine/newspaper) based out of Mumbai, then I will raise an invoice with a central GST of 9 per cent and a state GST of 9 per cent. The point to be noted here is that the overall rate of tax in both the cases (interstate and intrastate) is the same. Only the division is different.
Anyway, getting back to my story. Given that I hadn’t paid the right amount of state GST, this meant that I had logon to the GST portal once again and pay the state GST I hadn’t. The integrated GST I had already paid will now get adjusted against the payments that I will make in the months to come. The money is safe. There is nothing to worry on that front.
Of course, I didn’t realise I had made a mistake while paying the GST. It was only when my chartered accountant started filing the GST return, this mistake was noticed. After this, I frantically logged on to the GST portal in order to pay the state GST, I hadn’t. In fact, I almost ended up paying the integrated GST all over again. Thankfully, I noticed the mistake this time around.
In the process of making this mistake I had a rather obvious realisation. As someone who is collecting GST on behalf of the government, it doesn’t matter to me whether I am collecting state GST or central GST or integrated GST. This is something that should work at the backend of the system that has been created to implement GST.
How the GST collected by the government is split between the different governments (central and states) is not something I am really bothered about. Once I have upload my returns and have paid the right amount of GST, the system should be able to figure out, using GST numbers which have state codes and the PAN number of buyer as well as the seller built into it, what proportion of the GST should go to the central government and what proportion should go to the state governments.
Given this, I as a user should simply be making an entry for the total GST that I need to pay. The GST system can then easily figure out, the various kinds of GST, given that each buying-selling transaction along with the value, is reported as well.
But that is not how the current GST system works. The backend has become the front end as well. That is how the system has been designed.
It is well worth asking why? Dear Reader, if you have ever filed an income tax return form on your own even once, you would already know the answer. When the government designs these forms, it does not keep the ease of use of the end user in mind. That’s the idea with which the government has always operated. This has seeped into the GST system as well.
The success of any government system (or for that matter any system) also depends on how easy it is to use. This ease of use will make GST a good and simple tax, which it currently isn’t. In case of the GST, the government has just made the laws. The actual taxes need to be collected by the seller from the buyer. The seller then needs to hand the tax over to the government. The seller also needs to file returns. Currently, this entire process that has been made extremely cumbersome.
I am no GST expert, but I am sure that if some thought was given to the entire process of filing GST returns and paying GST to the government, it could be simplified. But for that to happen, first and foremost what is needed is bureaucratic will, even more than political will.
Indian bureaucrats have never liked to make things simple for the citizens of this country, because a simple system would discourage rent-seeking, which many of them excel in. And therefore, I feel that the GST will continue to be as complicated as ever.
The column originally appeared on Equitymaster on November 21, 2017.