The reason why doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is controlling the narrative – Fabian Nicieza in Suburban Dicks.
Over the last few years, several government ministers have blamed the oil bonds issued during the era of the previous United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, for the high petrol and diesel prices, which have prevailed for a while now.
The then oil minister Dharmendra Pradhan had tweeted in 2018 that: “The country and our OMCs [oil marketing companies} are also yet to recover from the shock of Oil Bonds worth Rs 1.4 Lakh Crores issued during the UPA regime.”
The finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman rblamed the oil bonds for the high prices of petrol and diesel, in a recent statement. This is not true. I have explained this issue in great detail on earlier occasions. Nevertheless, I will try and offer a broader summary here, before getting on to the new points I want to make.
Oil bonds were largely issued by the previous UPA government. This was done in order to compensate oil marketing companies, like Indian Oil, Bharat Petroleum and Hindustan Petroleum, for selling petrol, diesel, kerosene and domestic cooking gas, at a price which wasn’t monetarily feasible for them.
The argument offered by the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government is that since interest has to be paid on these bonds and that these bonds have to be repaid, the government needs to charge a high excise duty on petrol and diesel. This leads to high petrol and diesel prices.
In that sense, the NDA government and you and me are paying for the sins of the UPA government. This argument is never made in as clear words as I am making it here. Things are left vague enough for people to fill in the gaps and make their own WhatsApp forwards.
As of March 2014, before the NDA government came to power, the total oil bonds outstanding stood at Rs 1,34,423 crore. By March 2015, this had come down to Rs 1,30,923 crore, which is where it has stayed up until March 2021.
This means that between end March 2015 and end March 2021, no oil bonds matured and hence, the NDA government didn’t need to repay a single rupee of oil bonds. Of course, interest had to be paid on these bonds. An interest of Rs 9,990 crore has to be paid on these bonds every year. This means, over a period of six years, between end March 2015 and end March 2021, the government has paid Rs 59,940 crore as interest on these bonds.
During the same period, it earned Rs 14,60,036 crore as excise duty on petroleum products. As the government told the Lok Sabha in early August this year: “Central excise duty is contributed largely by Petrol and Diesel.” So, excise duty earned on the sale of petrol and diesel makes up for a bulk of the excise duty earned on sale of petroleum products.
In total, during this period, 4.1% of the excise duty collected on petroleum products has gone towards paying interest on oil bonds. In 2020-21, this stood at just 2.7% (Rs 9,990 crore of interest against excise duty of Rs 3,71,726 crore earned on petroleum products).
In fact, if were to look at excise duty collected on just petrol and diesel, between end March 2015 and end March 2021, it amounts to around Rs 13.7 lakh crore. The interest paid on oil bonds amounts to 4.4% of this amount.
In 2021-22, the current financial year, Rs 10,000 crore worth of oil bonds are maturing and hence, need to be repaid. The interest that needs to be paid on the oil bonds during the year should amount to around Rs 9,500 crore. So, during 2020-21, around Rs 19,500 crore will be needed by the government to service these bonds.
In an answer provided to the Lok Sabha recently, the government had said that the total excise duty earned on petrol and diesel, between April and June this year, had stood at Rs 94,181 crore.
Given that, the second Covid wave was on during this period, and that it would have negatively impacted the consumption of petrol and diesel to some extent, it is safe to say that if excise duty on petrol and diesel continue to be where they are, the total collections this year can easily touch Rs 4 lakh crore. Of course, the collections on petroleum products will be even greater.
Rs 19,500 crore works to around 4.9% of Rs 4 lakh crore. So, the government is likely to spend one-twentieth of the excise duty earned on petrol and diesel, in servicing the oil bonds (both repaying maturing bonds and paying interest on the outstanding bonds).
The remaining bonds worth Rs 1,20,923 crore (Rs 1,30,923 crore minus Rs 10,000 crore worth of bonds maturing this year), will mature between November 2023 and March 2026.
The other argument that is being made is that the government needs to save money in order to repay these bonds in the years to come. It is worth clarifying here that the government meets the expenditure of a given year from the revenue earned during that year. Hence, bonds maturing in 2023, 2024, 2025 and 2026, will be repaid using taxes earned during that year. This nullifies the argument about the government having to save in order to repay these bonds.
Hence, the entire argument that the oil bonds have led to a situation where the government has had to charge a high excise duty on petrol and diesel, is totally wrong. In fact, as I have explained earlier, the reason for this lies in the fall of corporate tax collections.
In 2018-19, the total corporate tax or the income tax paid by corporates had stood at Rs 6.64 lakh crore. This fell to Rs 5.57 lakh crore in 2019-20. It fell further to Rs 4.57 lakh crore in 2020-21.
This fall was on account of the base rate of corporate tax being cut from 30% to 22% in September 2019. It can also be argued that Covid must have led to lower profits for corporates in 2020-21 and hence, lower corporate tax collections for the government.
Data from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy tells us that in 2020-21, the net profit of listed corporates (more than 5,000 companies) increased by 120.3% in comparison to 2019-20. So, Covid didn’t impact profits among the listed corporates. While net profit went up by 120.3%, the corporate tax paid by these companies went up just 13.9%.
Covid has negatively impacted smaller businesses and that must have impacted corporate tax collections to a certain extent. But a bulk of the fall in corporate tax collections seems to have come from a lower rate of tax. This has been compensated through higher excise duty on petrol and diesel.
In 2018-19, excise duty earned on petroleum products by the central government brought in Rs 2.14 lakh crore. This jumped to Rs 3.72 lakh crore in 2020-21, thanks to a higher excise duty on petrol and diesel.
The corporate tax cut was supposed to boost consumption and lead to an increase in corporate investment. But that hasn’t really happened. Expecting consumption to increase thanks to lower corporate taxes was kite-flying at its very best.
Consumption increases when people see the prospect of earning more money, not when corporate taxes go down. Investment, for a whole host of reasons, has been down in the dumps for close to a decade now,. I shall not go into these reasons in detail here, having dealt with this issue on multiple occasions in the past.
This has created a communication problem around high petrol and diesel prices for a government obsessed with managing the narrative.
In their book Nudge—The Final Edition, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein talk about the publicity principle, originally elucidated by the philosopher John Rawls. As Thaler and Sunstein write: “If a firm or government adopts a policy that it could not easily defend publicly, it stands to face considerable embarrassment, and perhaps much worse, if the policy and its grounds are disclosed [emphasis added].”
This is precisely the problem with the entire messaging around the issue of high petrol and diesel prices. The only reason for this is the high excise duty on petrol and diesel, in order to compensate for lower corporate tax collections.
The excise duty on petrol has gone up from Rs 9.48 per litre in October 2014 to Rs 32.90 per litre currently, a jump of close to 250%. A bulk of this increase of around Rs 10 per litre has happened in the last one year. A similar story has played out with diesel, with excise duty going up from Rs 3.56 per litre in October 2014 to Rs 31.80 per litre currently, a jump of close to 800%. (I would like to thank Chintan Patel for providing this information by using the central government notifications on excise duty on petrol and diesel).
Of course, this is not something that a narrative obsessed government can admit to. This would mean telling the world at large that the common man is being made to pay for lower corporate taxes. This has led to the entire narrative around oil bonds and they having to be repaid and interest having to be paid on them, and that leading to a higher excise duty on petrol and diesel, and hence, higher pump prices of fuel.
This is a narrative that can be easily sold on WhatsApp, given that most people don’t have the time to check the facts of any argument and buy anything that is sent to them over the world’s newest and the most happening university.
“To exhort the individual citizen to make investments in knowledge comparable to those of lobbyists and political crusaders (both of whom have much lower costs per unit of personal benefit) is to urge him to behaviour that is irrational, if not physically impossible in a twenty-four hour day.”
This is something that the current government is making use of and projecting a narrative that wrongly blames the past government for high fuel prices.
As Thaler and Sunstein write: “Organizations of all forms should respect people, and if they adopt policies that they could not and would not defend in public, they fail to show that respect. Instead, they treat citizens as tools for their own use or manipulation [emphasis added].”
This is precisely what is happening.
The interesting thing is that the government has given the more or less the right reason behind high fuel prices in an answer to a question raised in the Lok Sabha. As it said: “The excise duty rates on petroleum products are calibrated from time to time with the objective of generating resources for infrastructure and other developmental items of expenditure, taking into account all relevant factors and keeping in view the prevailing fiscal situation.”
Every government has the right to tax the citizens in different ways. This answer tells us precisely that. Of course, explaining the rationale behind the tax is not always that straightforward.
(If the charts and the images are not loading, click here)
Between 2014-15 and now, taxes imposed by the central government on petrol and diesel have increased by 217% and 607%, respectively. The central government tax on diesel has gone up from Rs 4.50 per litre in 2014-15 to Rs 31.80 per litre currently. This is the real story.
Petrol and diesel prices are at an all-time high across the country. When it comes to petrol, prices have crossed the 100-rupee-per-litre mark, in many states. As expected, the central government is being questioned on this price rise.
On July 2, the finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman said that no discussions were underway to arrest the rising price of petrol and diesel. Her response to a question on rising prices of petrol and diesel was: “When the international price of crude oil is higher, we have to increase the prices and when the international price is lower, we have to decrease the prices here too. This is a market mechanism which is followed by oil marketing companies. We have given them the freedom.”
Citing the financial burden of the central government’s efforts on vaccine procurement, health infrastructure, and free food to the poor, she added that “state governments can give relief by reducing taxes or levies on petrol.”
In fact, a couple of months ago, she had referred to the taxation of fuels as a “dharamsankat”. So, what is this dharamsankat that Sitharaman bemoans?
Also, a lot of WhatsApp forwards have been going around explaining why it is impossible for the Narendra Modi government to cut petrol and diesel prices. One reason being offered is that the government needs to repay oil bonds issued by the previous UPA government. As we had explained on an earlier occasion this isn’t true. It’s just propaganda, albeit excellently run.
In this piece, we take the story forward with the hope that it can tackle some of the WhatsApp propaganda around petrol and diesel prices that is currently on.
In most situations in business, a product is sold at a price which includes the cost of manufacturing the product, the taxes that the company has paid in the process of manufacturing it and the profit margin that the company hopes to earn. Of course, the taxes aren’t a major portion of the overall price.
That’s not true for petrol and diesel in India. Taxes, as we shall see, form a significant part of the overall retail price. The retail price or the price we pay for petrol and diesel at the pump, is made up of four components – a) The price at which the dealer buys petrol and diesel from the oil marketing companies like Indian Oil, Bharat Petroleum or one of the private companies. This price includes the cost of producing petrol and diesel and getting it to the pump where it is sold. It also includes the profit margin of these companies. b) The central government tax. c) The state government tax. d) Dealer commission.
Of the four components, the price at which the dealer buys petrol and diesel from the oil marketing company, is the biggest variable. It is tied to the price of international crude oil. If the price of oil goes up, as it has since April 2020, the price of petrol and diesel also go up. In April 2020, the average price of the Indian basket of crude oil had fallen to $19.9 per barrel.
In June 2021, it averaged at $71.98 per barrel. As of July 13, it had risen to $74.97 per barrel. This, as Sitharaman said, is the main reason for the increase in petrol and diesel prices in the recent past. We would like to say that this is not the reason, but a reason. We will explain the details as we go along.
India produces very little oil of its own. In fact, the overall import dependency in April and May this year was at 85.4%. We are heavily dependent on oil imports. Hence, if price of oil goes up internationally, the price of petrol and diesel also go up within the country.
Now getting back to the components of the retail price of petrol and diesel. The second component is the central government tax, which is the central excise duty. This is fixed and only changes when the government decides so. (The central excise duty has further components, but we won’t get into that in this piece).
Then comes the state government tax on petrol and diesel. Some states refer to it as sales tax and in some other states it is called the value added tax. This tax is over and above the central excise duty and varies from state to state.
The pumps through which petrol and diesel are retailed also need to make some money. They earn a dealer commission, which is also a part of the per litre retail price . Having said that, the dealer commission is a small fraction of the total price, and mostly inconsequential in affecting the final retail prices of petrol and diesel.
Let’s look at the retail price breakdown of petrol and diesel in Delhi as of July 1, 2021. The following table shows us that.
Table 1. Price breakdown of petrol and diesel (in Rs per litre): July 1, 2021 (Delhi)
Let’s consider the price of petrol and try and understand this structure in detail. The price charged to the dealer is Rs 39.33 per litre. On this the central government charges an excise duty of Rs 32.90 per litre. Then there is a dealer commission of Rs 3.82 per litre.
These three entries add up to Rs 76.05 per litre. On this price, the Delhi government charges a value added tax of 30%, which works out to Rs 22.82 per litre. This is added to Rs 76.05 per litre and it adds up to a retail selling price of Rs 98.87 per litre of petrol.
It is interesting to note, the value added tax of the state government is charged on Rs 76.05 per litre, which also includes a central excise duty of Rs 32.90 per litre. This means that when you and I buy petrol we are paying a tax on a tax. This is true across the length and breadth of India and not just in Delhi.
Also, it is worth mentioning that the value added tax or the sales tax of the state governments is ad valorem, which means it is a certain proportion of the sum of the dealer price, central excise duty and dealer commission.
So, if the dealer price goes up or the central government decides to increase the excise duty, the state governments earn a higher tax per litre of petrol sold. What is true for petrol is also true for diesel, though the numbers change and so does the calculation accordingly.
Now let’s look at what proportion of the retail sales price do each of the four components form. Figure 1 and Figure 2 show that for petrol and diesel, respectively. The data is as of July 1.
Figure 1 and Figure 2 make for a very interesting reading. In case of petrol, the dealer price forms 39.8% of the retail price of petrol. The rest are largely taxes, imposed both by the central government and the state government. The taxes added up to 56.4% of the retail selling price of per litre of petrol in Delhi as of July 1.
Along similar lines, the dealer price makes for 46.8% of the retail price of diesel. The rest are largely taxes. Taxes amount to 141.7% of the dealer price for petrol and 107.3% of the dealer price for diesel. So, taxes form a significant portion of the price of petrol and diesel.
The interesting thing is that the central excise duty on petrol and diesel has been raised over the years. Up until early May 2020, the excise duty on petrol was Rs 22.98 per litre. It was raised to Rs 32.98 per litre. When it comes to diesel, the excise duty was raised by Rs 13 per litre, from Rs 18.83 per litre to Rs 31.83 per litre.
From February 2, 2021, the total excise duty on petrol and diesel has stood at Rs 32.90 per litre and Rs 31.80 per litre, respectively. Clearly, a significant proportion the increase in price of petrol and diesel over the last one year has been due to an increase in the excise duty charged by the central government. Hence, it’s not just about global oil prices going up, as Sitharaman would like us to believe.
In fact, in May last year, India had the distinction of being the highest taxer of auto fuels in the world, a whopping 69%. Since then, the portion of petrol and diesel prices that goes towards taxes, to both the central government and the state governments, has come closer to 50%, although the retail price at the pump has increased. Irrespective of whether it is 69% or 50%, taxes on petrol and diesel in India are high. Has it always been like that, or is it a recent development?
Let’s examine. Figure 3 plots the breakdown of the retail price of petrol over the years in Delhi (We are not obsessed with Delhi. But regular data in the public domain is only available for Delhi, hence, limiting our choice). For the sake of avoiding visual clutter, we have considered only the price in the month of May every year. In fact, petrol prices change frequently, sometimes several times a month due to fluctuations in crude oil prices.
Also, the central excise duty has been hiked more than once during some years. Thus, the chart below does not capture every price point over the last eight years but is still a good representative of the overall trend.
Source: Petroleum Planning and Analysis Cell
Now let’s try and understand this in detail. A look at the above chart tells us very clearly, the central government taxes on petrol have gone up over the years, from Rs 10.39 per litre in May 2014 to Rs 32.90 per litre in May 2021. This is a jump of around 217%. The state government value added tax in Delhi has also gone up from Rs 11.90 per litre to Rs 21.81 per litre, a jump of around 83%.
Clearly, taxes on petrol, more at the central government level than the level of state governments, have gone up over the years, and this has pushed up the retail selling price. Take a look at Figure 4 and Figure 5. They plot the proportion of each component in the retail selling price of petrol and diesel in May 2014 and May 2021, respectively.
Source: Petroleum Planning and Analysis Cell
Source: Petroleum Planning and Analysis Cell
As can be seen from Figure 4 and Figure 5, the price charged to the dealer, which was 66% of the retail selling price of Rs 71.41 per litre in May 2014, has since fallen to around 38% of the retail selling price of Rs 94.49 per litre in May 2021.
The central excise duty as a part of the retail selling price of petrol has jumped from 14.5% to 34.8%. This shows again that the increase in central excise duty has been a major reason for the increase in the price of petrol over the years. The increase in state government taxes have also played their role.
In fact, the dealer price of petrol in May 2014 was Rs 47.12 per litre in comparison to Rs 35.99 per litre in May 2021. Despite this, the retail selling price of petrol in May 2014 was at Rs 71.41 per litre, which was significantly lower than Rs 94.49 per litre in May 2021.
All that is true for petrol is also true for diesel. Figure 6 plots the price breakdown for diesel over the years. As can be clearly seen, the central government tax has gone up from Rs 4.50 per litre in May 2014 to Rs 31.80 per litre in May 2021, a jump of around 607%.
Meanwhile, the state government tax has almost doubled from Rs 6.61 per litre to Rs 12.50 per litre. When it comes to the dealer price for diesel, it was at Rs 44.98 per litre in May 2014 and at Rs 38.49 per litre in May 2021. Despite this, the retail selling price of diesel in May 2014 was at Rs 57.28 per litre, which was significantly lower than Rs 85.38 per litre in May 2021.
Source: Petroleum Planning and Analysis Cell
Let’s take a look at some interesting insights that emerge from the data above:
1) The price paid to the dealer was the highest in 2014. Since then, the dealer prices have come down, although not in a linear fashion. This is primarily because the average price of the Indian basket of crude oil in May 2014 stood at $106.85 per barrel. The oil price has seen a largely downward trend since then.
2) There have been some ups and downs when it comes to the dealer price, with the lowest prices for both petrol and diesel recorded in 2020, when they were around half of the price in 2014. This was on account of the price of the Indian basket for crude falling to $30.61 per barrel during May 2020, the lowest in any May since May 2014. Compared to the lows of 2020, dealer prices have risen by over 60% which explains the recent price surge at the pump. As explained earlier, retail prices have also gone up due to a massive increase in the central excise duty on petrol and diesel by Rs 10 per litre and Rs 13 per litre, respectively, in early May 2020.
3) From 2014 to 2021, taxes imposed by the central government have increased by around 217% on petrol and around 607% on diesel. The bulk of these increases were over two periods – from 2014 to 2015, and from 2019 to 2020, either by co-incidence or by design, both these periods were immediately following Narendra Modi’s election victories.
4)The first round of hikes in central excise duty in 2014 was effectively done to capture the gains from the drop in crude oil prices. The average price of the Indian basket of crude oil in May 2014, the month in which Modi was elected the prime minister, had stood at $106.85 per barrel. By January 2016, it was down to $28.08 per barrel. Instead of passing on lower prices to the consumer, the government decided to bolster tax revenues when global oil prices fell. Thus, the end consumer did not see a price decrease from the fall in crude oil prices.
5)After that, from 2015 to 2019, the central government tinkered with the central excise duty with marginal increases or decreases to keep the retail price somewhat bounded. In fact, in October 2017 and October 2018, the excise rate on both petrol and diesel was cut by Rs 2/litre and Rs 1.50/litre, respectively, to counter the increasing oil prices. The 2019 general elections also likely influenced these cuts.
6)The next big hike in central excise was in early May 2020, again around the same time when global oil prices plummeted in the aftermath of the covid pandemic, when the duty on petrol was increased by Rs 10/litre and that on diesel by Rs 13/litre. The price of the Indian basket of crude averaged at $19.9 per barrel in April 2020. It has since risen to more than $70 per barrel. But with a rise in oil prices in 2021, the excise tax has not been reduced. Hence, a higher oil price and a higher excise duty have both contributed to the rise in pump prices of petrol and diesel.
7) The charts above are for Delhi. As explained earlier, each state has a different value added tax or sales tax when it comes to petrol and diesel and a slightly different trend over the last eight years. A detailed analysis of every state is outside the scope of this piece. Nevertheless, the broader point stays the same. A major reason for the increase in the retail selling price of petrol and diesel, and the fact that petrol is selling at more than Rs 100 per litre in many states, is because the central excise duty on petrol and diesel, has been increased majorly over the years. The increase in state government taxes have also had a small role to play.
Officials in both the central government and state governments know that the current petrol and diesel prices are placing a high burden on the end consumer. Both sense discontent brewing on this issue, which can ultimately cost at the ballots. So, both stand to gain, if taxes are cut and prices fall.
Crucially, both have the ability to reduce the retail price, by lowering their portion of the tax. But the way things are currently it seems that the state governments would prefer the central government reducing excise duty, and the central government would prefer the state governments reducing the sales tax or the value added tax.
Given that both sides are standing firm, the consumer has ended up teary-eyed. Also, as we have seen, the central government taxes on petrol and diesel have gone up significantly more than the state taxes. Clearly, the ball is in the central government’s court.
To add more intrigue to the petrol and diesel tax saga, there is one other thing to consider. A part of the central excise duty is shared with the states. This part is referred to as the divisible pool. Much of the increase in central excise since May 2014 has been in the form of surcharge and cess, which are not shared with the states. We have discussed this in detail in an earlier piece.
As of 2021, only Rs 1.40 of Rs 32.90 collected through the central excise duty on per litre of petrol, and only Rs 1.80 of the Rs 31.80 collected through the central excise on per litre of diesel, goes to the divisible pool.
Since the states get 42% of the revenue from the divisible pool, they end up getting 59 paisa per litre which is a mere 1.8% of excise duty collected by the central government on per litre of petrol. For diesel, the states’ share comes to 76 paisa per litre amounting to 2.4% of the central excise duty per litre of diesel.
Given that the central government has employed such a strategy of actively undercutting states’ revenue from the central excise duty collections on petrol and diesel, it is a tad optimistic to expect the state governments to be enthusiastic about a coordinated approach, where both the central government and the state governments reduce the taxes they collect on sale of petrol and diesel at the same time.
Central government dependence
In the last couple of years, the central government has become overly dependent on the central excise duty that it earns on the sale of petroleum products (primarily petrol and diesel). In 2014-15, the central government had earned Rs 99,068 crore from this. This jumped to Rs 2.23 lakh crore in 2019-20. It jumped to an all-time high of Rs 3.72 lakh crore in 2020-21.
This compensates for the massive fall in corporate tax or the income tax paid on corporate profit. This had stood at Rs 6.64 lakh crore in 2018-19. In 2020-21, it fell to Rs 4.57 lakh crore, a drop of about a third. This happened because in September 2019, the government reduced the base rate of corporate tax to 22%, from the earlier 30%. Hence, the collections of corporate taxes fell in 2020-21, despite the massive increase in profits of listed corporates during the year.
Over and above this, a badly designed and run Goods and Services Tax has not brought in the amount of taxes it was expected to. As the Fifteenth Finance Commission Report put it: “In terms of government finances, [GST] was expected to improve the overall tax-GDP ratio in the medium term and lead to higher Union [central government] transfers to States.” But that hasn’t happened. This can clearly be seen in Figure 7.
Source: Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy.
There is no free lunch in economics. The costs of a fall in corporate tax collections and weaker than expected GST collections, are being borne by everyone who buys petrol and diesel in a direct way. In an indirect way, we are paying for it in the form of higher inflation.
This is why the central government cannot reduce excise duty on petrol and diesel. Their finances have become too reliant on the revenue generated by the excise duty on petrol and diesel.
The economy was already on weak footing when Covid hit. The pandemic triggered a massive reduction of economic activity – one that is still on going, which has reduced tax inflow from other sources. The fact that corporate income tax was cut hasn’t helped either.
Additionally, there are more financial demands on the government than the past. The government needs money to finance pandemic-induced expenses like vaccine procurement and improving healthcare delivery. All this could have been easily done if corporate income tax rates hadn’t been cut or GST had been launched and run properly.
In such an environment of decreased income, the government is unable to wean itself off taxes it earns from the sale of petrol and diesel. In many ways this dilemma is self-imposed since this government’s original sin was its economic mismanagement before the pandemic hit. You construct a house poorly and a storm hits. Now you are drenched due to a leaking roof. Is the storm the only one to blame?
Good policy, bad policy
As a thought experiment, say the central government reduces the central excise duty on petrol and diesel by Rs 10/litre. The immediate knock-on effect will be one of the following three scenarios. One, the government will have to scale back spending to make up for the loss in revenue. Two, the government will increase a different tax (as we said earlier there is no free lunch). Three, the government takes on a higher fiscal deficit (the difference between its annual expenditure and revenue).
Given this, the government has decided to continue with the high central excise duty on petrol and diesel. But is that the best option available?
High prices of petrol and diesel cause misgivings in a large section of the electorate, especially the middle class and the poor. That the Modi government is willing to risk this public sentiment speaks to their confidence in assuaging voters through other avenues. While it’s for the government to figure out its politics on this issue, the economics of the decision though, can be debated.
As always, the economic argument on general topic of taxation of petrol and diesel is nuanced. An increase in taxes on petrol and diesel (such as the central excise) has two negative economic impacts.
One, this leads to a higher inflation. Most goods need to be transported from where they are produced to where they are consumed, and the primary mode of transport of goods in India are trucks that run on diesel. So, when diesel prices go up, due to higher taxes or otherwise, price of most goods also increase. Inflation has its impact on consumption and that in turn slows down economic growth.
Two, a higher tax on petrol and diesel, is the opposite of a consumer stimulus i.e., it takes money out of people’s pockets. Higher fuel costs mean lesser disposable funds for other purchases, which then depresses demand for goods and services.
One criticism of India’s economic response to the covid pandemic has been that most of the government actions have been directed towards suppliers and firms, instead of the consumers. Most developed nations have put money directly in the hands of citizens to revive consumer demand.
Whether India’s fiscal situation allows for a meaningful stimulus is debatable, but surely a negative stimulus (which is what the higher central excise duty on petrol and diesel works out to), cannot help with the economic revival.
Given that the government has been addicted to taxes it earns from petrol and diesel, for more than a few years now, it has gone slow on disinvestment of its stakes in public sector companies as well as the land owned by them. The revenue that could potentially come in from here, could reduce the dependence on taxes coming in from the retail sale of petrol and diesel. But that hasn’t happened.
On the flip side, there is an argument in favour of higher taxes on petrol and diesel, related to environmental impact. Given the negative impact of fossil fuels on carbon emissions and global warming, higher taxes on petrol and diesel could/should in theory dampen their demand. However, in India, this line of reasoning is not very convincing.
Figure 8 shows the annual consumption of demand of petrol and diesel.
Source: Petroleum Planning and Analysis Cell
Other than 2020-21 which was affected by lockdowns and curfews, the demand for petrol and diesel has increased each year, despite changing prices. Moreover, diesel makes up for most of the fuel consumption, and it is particularly insensitive to price fluctuations since it is used for commercial transport and so the cost is passed on to the end consumer.
As RS Sharma, former chairman of ONGC said in 2018: “Demand for diesel is typically inelastic as most of the rise in price is borne by the end consumer and can be seen to directly impact inflation.”
Of course, one can’t rule out the possibility that if petrol and diesel prices had not increased due to a higher central excise duty, the demand would have grown even more. One cannot even quantify how the increased prices may incentivise adoption of alternative sources of energy, electric vehicles and such.
The trade-off between economic development and environmental stewardship is the ultimate dharamsankat of our times and taxes on petrol and diesel do lie in that realm. But we doubt that is on Sitharaman’s mind.
PS: This article can become the WhatsApp forward to beat all WhatsApp forwards. So, what are you waiting for? Press the share button.
Yesterday evening, a friend from school WhatsApped a doubt he had. He wanted to know if petrol and diesel prices were high because the Narendra Modi government had to repay oil bonds, which had been issued by United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government more than a decade back.
To repay these oil bonds, money is needed. This has led to significantly higher central government taxes on petrol and diesel, which has in turn led to higher pump prices.
However convincing the argument may sound, it’s wrong. 100% wrong. And I have been saying this for a few years now.
Of course, my saying this hardly makes a difference, given that every time petrol and diesel prices rise, WhatsApp starts buzzing all over again with forwards blaming oil bonds issued by the UPA for high petrol and diesel prices. Currently, the price of petrol is more than Rs 100 per litre in several parts of the country.
This high price is on account of a higher excise duty collected by the central government in order to compensate for a fall in corporate tax collections. In that sense, you and I are bearing the cost of lower corporate taxes, in the form of a higher price of petrol and diesel.
Let’s try and understand the issue of high petrol and diesel prices, and why things are the way they are, in some detail.
1)Crude oil prices have risen between last year and now. In June 2020, the average price of the Indian basket of crude oil was at $40.63 per barrel. As of June 16, 2021, the price was at $73.18 per barrel. Clearly, this is one reason behind the rise in petrol and diesel prices, but this isn’t the only reason, and not even the main one.
2) Before getting into any other detail, let’s understand what oil bonds are. These bonds were issued by the UPA government to the oil marketing companies (Indian Oil, Bharat Petroleum, Hindustan Petroleum), for the under-recoveries (the difference between the administrative price and the cost) they suffered when selling petrol, diesel, kerosene and domestic cooking gas, below their cost. This happened up until 2009-2010. Officially, these bonds are referred to as special securities issued to oil marketing companies in lieu of cash subsidy.
Instead of compensating companies immediately for the subsidy offered by them, by giving them money, the government gave them oil bonds, which would pay annual interest and mature a few years down the line. By doing this, the government expenditure during those years didn’t go up. This helped control the fiscal deficit in those years, when oil bonds were issued. Fiscal deficit is the difference between what a government earns and what it spends.
3) Of course, these bonds would mature over the years and the government of the day would have to repay them. And that would need money. So what is the value of these bonds which the government still needs to repay? In a question raised in the Rajya Sabha in December 2018, the government had said: “The current outstanding balance on account of Government of India (GoI) Special Bonds issued to the Public Sector Oil Marketing Companies (OMCs) in lieu of cash subsidy is about Rs 1.30 lakh crore.”
So, two and a half years back, the value of the outstanding oil bonds had stood at around Rs 1.30 lakh crore. What’s the latest number? Take a look at the following table. It has been sourced from the latest government budget. It lists out the different oil bonds that are still to be repaid, with their maturity dates.
What does this table tell us? It tells us that as of March 2021, the total outstanding oil bonds issued by the government stood at Rs 1,30,923 crore. Or the same as what the government had told the Rajya Sabha in December 2018.
4)In fact, the amount of outstanding oil bonds has barely changed during Modi government’s tenure. Look at the following tabled sourced from the 2014-15 budget, presented in July 2014, after Narendra Modi became prime minister.
As of March 2014, the total outstanding oil bonds stood at Rs 1,34,423 crore. Two different oil bonds with maturity amounts of Rs 1,750 crore each, matured in 2014-15, on March 7, 2015, and March 23, 2015, respectively. This brought down to the total outstanding oil bonds to Rs 1,30,923 crore, and which is the current outstanding amount as well.
The point being that the government hasn’t had to repay any outstanding oil bonds since March 2015. Of course, it has had to pay an interest on these oil bonds, like it does on all other bonds.
How much is this interest? As the government told the Rajya Sabha in December 2018: “The annual aggregated amount of Rs 9,989.96 crore was paid every year during 2015-16 to 2017-18 and the similar amount is required to be paid in the current financial year.”
Given that, the outstanding amount of oil bonds didn’t change through 2018-19, 2019-20 and 2020-21, the government would have paid the same amount as interest in each of these years, as it did during 2015-16 to 2017-18.
How does the situation look in 2021-22, the current financial year? As can be seen from both the tables (I know the tables are not very clear. If you really want to verify the data, the source of the tables is available just below them. All you need to do is click), Rs 5,000 crore of bonds are due to be repaid on October 16 and November 28, respectively, later this year. This amounts to Rs 10,000 crore in total.
Over and above this, interest needs to be repaid on the outstanding bonds. Given that Rs 10,000 crore worth of bonds of the total Rs 1,30,923 crore of oil bonds, will be repaid during this financial year, the interest to be paid on the remaining bonds will be less than Rs 9,989.96 crore that the government has been paying year on year. A back of the envelope calculation tells us that the interest to be paid this year should amount to around Rs 9,500 crore.
Hence, in total, the government needs Rs 19,500 crore to repay oil bonds as well as pay interest on them during 2021-22. When it comes to government finances, this is small change.
5)If we look at the excise duty collected on petroleum products over the years, data from Petroleum Planning and Analysis Cell tells us that it stood at Rs 99,068 crore in 2014-15, the financial year in which Narendra Modi was sworn in as prime minister.
The number reached Rs 2,23,057 crore in 2019-20. It touched Rs 2,35,811 crore between April and December 2020, the first nine months of 2020-21. Given this, it would have crossed Rs 3,00,000 crore during 2020-21.
In 2021-22, the central government expects to collect more than Rs 3,00,000 crore through excise duties on petroleum products. A look at this year’s budget tells us that the government hopes to collect Rs 74,350 crore on special additional duty of excise on motor spirit(petrol) and Rs 1,98,000 crore through duty of excise on motor spirit and high-speed diesel oil (road and infrastructure cess). Just this adds to close to Rs 2.75 lakh crore.
Over and above this, one needs to pay a basic excise duty on every litre of petrol and diesel purchased, and there is an agriculture infrastructure and development cess to be paid as well. Clearly, this year, the government will earn more than Rs 3 lakh crore from different kinds of excise duties on petroleum products.
From February 2, 2021, the total excise duty on petrol and diesel has stood at Rs 32.90 per litre and Rs 31.80 per litre, respectively. The total central excise duties on petrol and diesel have been rising since 2014. They had stood at Rs 10.38 per litre and Rs 4.52 per litre in March 2014.
In fact, even in April 2020, they had stood at Rs 22.98 per litre and Rs 18.83 per litre, respectively.
Between April last year and now, the petrol price is higher by close to Rs 10 per litre just because of higher central government taxes on it. When it comes to diesel, it is higher by close to Rs 13 per litre because of this.
6) There is another small reason for higher prices as well. The state government taxes on petrol and diesel are ad valorem, that is they are a certain percentage of the price charged to dealers plus the excise duty of the central government plus the dealer commission on every litre of petrol and diesel sold.
Take a look at the following table, which has the detail for petrol sold in Delhi.
The price of petrol charged to dealers in Delhi by Bharat Petroleum was at Rs 37.68 per litre as on June 16. On this there was an excise duty charged by the central government of Rs 32.90 per litre along with a dealer commission of Rs 3.80 per litre. This adds up to Rs 74.38 per litre.
On this, the Delhi government charges a value added tax of 30%, which amounts to Rs 22.32 per litre. This leads to a retail selling price of Rs 96.70 per litre (Rs 74.38 plus Rs 22.32) in Delhi.
Like, the Delhi government, other state governments also charge a value added tax or a sales tax on petrol and diesel sold in their respective territories. The 30% tax charged by the Delhi government is ad valorem. Hence, if the petrol price charged to dealers goes up as oil price goes up, the tax collected by the Delhi government also goes up.
Over and above this, when the central government increases the excise duty on petrol, the tax collected by the Delhi government (and all other governments) goes up because the state government charges a value added tax on dealer price plus excise duty plus dealer commission.
Hence, every time you and I buy petrol or diesel, we are paying a tax on tax. This is an anomaly that needs to be set right. And state governments need to charge a sales tax just on the dealer price and commission, and not on the central government excise duty as well.
7)A major reason for the central government implementing a high excise duty on petrol and diesel, lies in the fact that the government’s tax revenues as a proportion of the size of the Indian economy, measured by the gross domestic product (GDP), has been falling over the years.
Look at the following chart. It plots the ratio of gross tax revenue earned by the central government as a proportion of the GDP.
Source: Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy and Controller General of Accounts.
What does this chart show? It shows that the gross tax revenue as a percentage of the GDP reached an all-time high of 12.11% in 2007-08. The gross tax revenue was at 11.22% of the GDP in 2017-18 and fell to 10.25% of the GDP in 2020-21.
The recent fall has been more because of a fall in corporate tax collections. In 2017-18, the corporate tax collections amounted to a total of 3.34% of the GDP and fell to 2.32% of the GDP in 2020-21. This was despite the listed companies registering bumper profits during the financial year.
Corporate taxes have come down primarily on account of the base tax rate being cut from 30% to 22% in September 2019 and to 15% from the earlier 25% for new manufacturing companies.
In absolute terms, the total corporate tax collected in 2019-20 had stood at Rs 5.57 lakh crore. It fell to Rs 4.57 lakh crore in 2020-21, thanks to lower tax rates. The collections of the goods and services tax have also not gone along expected lines.
To compensate for this to some extent, the government has had to increase the excise duty on petroleum products. Hence, it is only fair to say that the cost of lower corporate tax rates for the government, is being borne by citizens in the form of higher petrol and diesel prices. There is no free lunch, as I keep reminding.
To conclude, while the revenue earned by the government can vary, its expenditure doesn’t. It usually goes up year on year. In 2017-18, the total expenditure to GDP ratio stood at 12.53%. This jumped to 17.47% in 2020-21. Of course, 2020-21, could very well be an anomaly given that the size of the economy (GDP) contracted.
Nevertheless, the expenditure in 2019-20 had also stood at a higher 13.20% of the GDP, while the gross tax collections fell. And someone had to pay for this.
If there are two things that get people of this country interested in economics, they are the price of onion and the price of petrol racing towards Rs 100 per kg or litre, respectively. Currently, the price of petrol is racing towards Rs 100 per litre in large parts of the country. In fact, in some parts, it has already crossed that level.
So, what’s happening here? Let’s take a look at this pointwise.
1)Take a look at the following chart, which plots the average price of the Indian basket of crude oil since January 2020.
Source: Petroleum Planning and Analysis Cell. *February price as of February 18, 2021.
What does the above chart tell us? It tells us that as the covid pandemic spread, the price of oil fell, falling to a low of $19.90 per barrel in April 2020. It has been rising since then. One simple reason for this lies in the fact that as the global economy recovers, its energy needs will go up accordingly and hence, the price of oil is going up as well.
The other reason has been the massive amount of money that Western central banks have printed through the beginning of 2020. Oil, as it had post 2008, has emerged as a hard asset of investment for many institutional and high-networth investors, leading to an increase in its price. As of February 18, the price of the Indian basket of crude oil stood at $63.65 per barrel, having risen by close to 220% during the current financial year.
2)Now let’s look at the average price of the Indian basket of crude oil over the years.
Source: Petroleum Planning and Analysis Cell. * Up to January 2021.
What does the above chart tell us? It tells us that the Narendra Modi government has been very lucky when it comes to the price of oil, with the oil price on the whole being much lower than it was between 2009 and 2014.
In May 2014, when Modi took over as the prime minister, the price of oil averaged at $106.85 per barrel. By January 2016, it had fallen to $28.08 per barrel.
Even after that, the price of oil hasn’t touched the high levels it did before 2014, in the post financial crisis years, which also happened to be the second term of the Manmohan Singh government.
A major reason for this lies in the discovery of shale oil in the United States. In fact, as Daniel Yergin writes in The New Map – Energy, Climate and the Clash of Nations: “In the autumn of 2018, though it was hardly noted at the time, something historic occurred: The United States overtook both Russia and Saudi Arabia to regain its rank as the world’s largest oil producer, a position it had lost more than four decades earlier.” This has been a major reason in the lower price of oil over a longer term.
The question that then crops up is why hasn’t petrol price in India seen low levels? The answer lies in the fact that between 2014 and 2021, the taxes on petrol, in particular central government taxes have gone up dramatically.
In short, the central government has captured a bulk of the fall in oil prices. Now when the oil price has gone up over the course of this financial year, the high-price of petrol has started to pinch.
3)Take a look at the following table. It plots the price of petrol in Delhi as of February 16, 2021 and in March 2014.
Source: https://iocl.com/uploads/priceBuildup/PriceBuildup_petrol_Delhi_as_on_16_Feb-2021.pdf and https://www.ppac.gov.in/WriteReadData/Reports/201409231239065062686Snapshot_IOGD_MAR.pdf.
The above table makes for a very interesting reading. As of February 16, the price of petrol charged to dealers was Rs 32.1. Over and above this, the central government charged an excise duty of Rs 32.90 per litre on petrol. Add to this a dealer commission of Rs 3.68 per litre, and we are looking at a total of Rs 68.68 per litre.
On this the Delhi state government charged a value added tax of 30% or Rs 20.61 per litre. This leads to a retail price of petrol of Rs 89.29 per litre. Given that the state government charges a tax in percentage terms, the higher the price of petrol goes, the more tax the state government earns. The vice versa is also true.
Let’s compare this to how things were in March 2014. The price of petrol charged to dealers was Rs 47.13 per litre, much lower than it is today. On this, the central government’s tax amounted to Rs 10.38 per litre. The dealer commission was Rs 2 per litre.
Adding all of this up, we got a total of Rs 59.51 per litre. On this, the Delhi state government charged a value added tax of 20%, which amounted to Rs 11.9 per litre and a retail selling price of petrol of Rs 71.41 per litre. Interestingly, the state government’s tax was more than that of the central government at that point of time.
4)The above calculations explain almost everything. In March 2014, the price of petrol at the dealer level was higher than it is now, but the retail selling price was lower. Both the central government and the state government have raised taxes since then.
The total taxes as a percentage of dealer price now works out to 167% of the dealer price. In March 2014, they were at 47.3%. It is these high taxes which also explain why petrol prices in India are higher than in many other countries.
Of course, a bulk of this raise has come due to a rise in taxes charged by the central government. As mentioned earlier, the central government has captured a bulk of the fall in price of oil.
5)The calculation shown here will vary from state to state, depending on the value added tax or sales tax charged by the state government and the price at which petrol is sold to the dealers. States which charge a higher value added tax than Delhi will see the price of petrol reaching Rs 100 per litre faster than Delhi, if the price of oil continues to rise.
6)Of course, the governments can bring down the price of petrol by cutting taxes. In fact, four state governments have cut taxes providing some relief to oil consumers. But any substantial relief can be provided only by the central government. The trouble is that tax collections have fallen this year. Only the collection of excise duty has gone up by 54% to Rs 2.39 lakh crore, thanks to the higher excise duty charged on petrol and diesel.
The interesting thing is that the excise duty earned from the petroleum sector has jumped from Rs 99,068 crore in 2014-15 to Rs 2.23 lakh crore in 2019-20. The government has become addicted to easy revenue from taxing petrol and diesel. This year its earnings will be even higher than in 2019-20.
7) The central government also fears that if it cuts the excise duty on petrol and diesel, the state governments can step in and increase their value added tax, given that like the centre, they are also struggling to earn taxes this year.
Also, what needs to be kept in mind here is that the central government doesn’t share a good bit of what it earns through the excise duty on petrol and diesel with the states. This is because a bulk of the excise duty is charged in the form of a cess, which the central government does not need to share with the states.
Let’s take the overall excise duty of Rs 32.90 per litre of petrol currently. Of this, the basic excise duty is Rs 1.40 per litre and the special additional excise duty is at Rs 11 per litre. The road and infrastructure cess is at Rs 18 per litre (also referred to as additional excise duty) and the agriculture and infrastructure development cess is at Rs 2.50 litre. Clearly, the cess has a heavier weight in the overall excise duty.
8)One reason offered for the high price of petrol is low atmanirbharta or that as a country we have to import more and more oil than we did in the past. In 2011-12, the import dependency was 75.9%. This jumped to 77.6% in 2013-14 and has been rising since. In April to December 2020, this has jumped to 85%.
The explanation offered on this has been that oil companies haven’t carried out enough exploration activities in the past. Let’s take a look at the numbers of ONGC, the government’s biggest oil production company (or upstream oil company, as it is technically referred to).
The total amount of money spent by the company on digging exploratory wells in 2019-20 stood at Rs 4,330.6 crore. This had stood at Rs 11,687.2 crore in 2013-14. Over the years, the amount of money spent by ONGC on exploration has come down dramatically. This explains to some extent why the crude oil production in India has fallen from 37.8 million tonnes in 2013-14 to 30.5 million tonnes in 2019-20, leading to a higher import dependency.
Of course, not all exploration leads to discovery of oil, nevertheless, at the same time unless you explore, how do you find oil.
The reason why ONGC’s spending on exploration has fallen is primarily because the company has taken on a whole lot of debt over the past few years to finance the acquisition of HPCL and a majority stake in Gujarat State Petroleum Corporation’s (GSPC) KG Basin gas block. The money that ONGC borrowed to finance the purchase of HPCL from the government was used by the government to finance the fiscal deficit. Fiscal deficit is the difference between what a company earns and what it spends.
The borrowing has led to the finance costs of the company going up from Rs 0.4 crore in 2013-14 to Rs 2,823.7 crore in 2019-20. The cash reserves of the company are down to Rs 968.2 crore as of March 2020 from Rs 10,798.9 crore as of March 2014.
All this explains why the price of petrol is racing towards Rs 100 per litre. At the cost of sounding very very very cliched, there is no free lunch in economics. Somebody’s got to bear the cost.
It will be interesting to see if the central government continues to hold on to the high excise duty on petrol and diesel (whatever I have said for petrol applies for diesel as well, with a different set of numbers) leading to a high petrol and diesel price and lets these high rates feed into inflation in the process.
At the end of every month, the Controller General of Accounts (CGA) declares the revenue and the expenses of the central government up until the last month. Hence, on September 30, the CGA declared the revenue and the expenses of the central government between April 1 and August 31.
Take a look at the following chart. It plots the decrease in gross tax revenue between April and August 2020 in comparison to the same period in 2019. The major taxes collected by the central government are income tax that you and I pay, corporate tax (income tax paid by corporates), customs duties, central goods and services tax, goods and services tax compensation cess and excise duties.
They all fall down
Source: Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy.
As can be seen in the above chart, the collections of all taxes have come down. The gross tax revenue is down 23.7% to Rs 5.04 lakh crore. Only one tax and that is excise duty, has grown during the course of this year. The growth is a huge 32.05% to Rs 1 lakh crore.
Given the economic contraction this year, it is hardly surprising that tax collections have crashed. The question is how has the collection of excise duties increased by almost a third?
This is primarily because of the central government increasing the excise duty it charges on petrol and diesel. This has been done twice in 2020. First in March and then again in May.
The excise duty on petrol stood at Rs 19.98 per litre, when it was increased by Rs 3 per litre in March and then again by Rs 10 per litre in May and now stands at Rs 32.98 per litre. When it comes to diesel, the excise duty on it stood at Rs 15.83 per litre in March. It was increased by Rs 3 per litre in March and Rs 13 per litre in May.
Take a look at the following table. It provides the price build up of petrol in Delhi as of March 1 and as of October 1.
High and low.
Source: Indian Oil Corporation.
This table makes for a very interesting reading. Let’s first understand how the mathematics of this works out using the data as of October 1.
The price charged to dealers is Rs 25.68 per litre. On this, the central government charges an excise duty of Rs 32.98 per litre. There is a dealer commission of Rs 3.69 per litre. Adding the price charged to dealers (Rs 25.98), the excise duty (Rs 32.98) and the dealer commission (Rs 3.69), we get a price of Rs 62.35 per litre. On this the local Delhi government charges a value added tax of 30%. This works out to Rs 18.71 per litre in this case.
Adding the value added tax, we get the retail selling price of Rs 81.06 per litre. The maths for the price as of March 1, works similarly, the difference being in the numbers and the taxes.
In March, the price of Indian basket of crude oil was around $55 per barrel. The latest price of the Indian basket of crude oil is around $41 per barrel. This is reflected in the fact that the price charged to dealers as of October 1, stood at Rs 25.68 per litre, lower than the Rs 32.93 per litre charged in March.
Despite the higher price charged to dealers, the retail selling price of petrol in March was at Rs 71.71 per litre as against Rs 81.06 per litre in October. The price as of today is 13% higher than that in March.
What’s happening here? Let’s take a look at it pointwise.
1) The total excise duty on petrol was at Rs 19.98 per litre in March. It has since gone up to Rs 32.98 per litre, Rs 13 per litre extra. This adds to the retail price.
2) The value added tax charged by the Delhi government has also increased from 27% to 30%. This also adds to the retail price though not as much as the increase in excise duties.
3) As of March 1, taxes amounted to Rs 35.23 per litre (excise duties + value added tax). This was against a price charged to dealers of Rs 32.93 per litre. Taxes amounted to 107% of the price charged to dealers.
As of October 1, taxes amount to Rs 51.69 per litre (excise duties + value added tax). This is against a price charged to dealers of Rs 25.68 per litre. Taxes now amount to 201% of the priced charged to dealers. This explains the higher retail price of petrol, despite the lower price charged to dealers, thanks to a lower oil price.
4) There is another way of looking at this data. In March, the total taxes amounted to around 49% of the retail price. In October, they amount to around 64% of the retail price. There has been a substantial increase in taxes.
5) The reason behind this increase is that the central government needs to meet its expenditure from somewhere. One point that often gets made on the social media is that the central government shares the increase in excise duties with the state governments. This isn’t totally true.
In May, the excise duty on petrol was hiked by Rs 10 per litre. Of this hike, the hike in road and infrastructure cess (additional excise duty) was Rs 8 per litre. Given that this is a cess, it need not be shared with the state governments. Hence, the bulk of the increase has stayed with the central government.
Now let’s take a look at diesel pointwise. In this case, I am taking diesel price in Delhi as of February 12. I couldn’t find the data for March 1. But the logic remains entirely the same.
2) The total excise duty on diesel back then was Rs 15.83 per litre. Currently, it stands at Rs 31.83 per litre. This has added to the price of diesel.
3) As of February 1, the price charged to dealers was Rs 36.98. The excise duty was Rs 15.83 per litre. The value added tax worked out to Rs 9.56 per litre. Hence, total taxes (excise duty + value added tax) worked out to Rs 25.39 per litre or around 69% of the price charged to dealers.
As of October 1, the excise duty is at Rs 31.83 per litre whereas the value added tax works out to Rs 10.37 per litre. Hence, total taxes work out to Rs 42.2 per litre or 164% of the price charged to dealers.
4) Total taxes amounted to 39% of the retail price in February. They now work out to 60%.
5) In May, the excise duty on diesel was hiked by Rs 13 per litre. Of this hike, the hike in road and infrastructure cess (additional excise duty) was Rs 8 per litre. Given that this is a cess, it need not be shared with state governments. Hence, the bulk of the increase has stayed with the central government.
This explains why you and I are paying a higher amount per litre of petrol and diesel, despite oil prices being lower from the time the covid-pandemic struck. Also, it needs to be mentioned here that the consumption of petroleum products has fallen every month between April and August. The following chart plots the same.
The interesting thing here is that thanks to a higher excise duty per litre of petrol and diesel, the collection of excise duties has risen, despite fall in consumption. Also, the other interesting bit here is that the consumption decline was at 8.4% in June. The situation has worsened since then.
In the last six years, the government hasn’t passed on the fall in the price of oil to the end consumer. In May 2014, when Narendra Modi took over as prime minister, the average price of the Indian basket of crude oil during the month was $106.85 per barrel. The following chart plots the average price of the Indian basket of crude oil during a particular year, over the years.
The above chart makes for a very interesting reading. The average price of the Indian basket of crude oil in 2020-21 at $35.74 per barrel, has been the lowest since 2003-04. But that is clearly not reflected in the retail price of petrol and diesel, thanks to higher taxes, particularly higher excise duties.
A May 2020 report by the Press Trust of India points out: “The tax on petrol was Rs 9.48 per litre when the Modi government took office in 2014 and that on diesel was Rs 3.56 a litre.” The Modi government has captured a bulk of the fall in price of oil over the years. This is clearly reflected in the following chart, which plots the excise duty earned by the government from petroleum products.
As can be seen from the above chart, the excise duty earned from petrol and diesel has more than doubled over the years. While, the government has captured a bulk of the fall in oil prices, there are no guarantees that it will protect the consumer, if and when oil prices start to go up again.
Also, this is a very easy way for the government to collect revenue. It allows them to go slow on more difficult ways, like selling stakes in public sector enterprises (PSEs), selling the massive land owned by PSEs, shutting down the badly run PSEs, fixing the badly implemented goods and services tax system, and so on.
Take a look at the following chart which compares India’s petrol and diesel prices with that of our neighbouring countries.
The Indian high
Source: Websites of oil companies in these different countries. Nepal prices from local newspapers. (I would like to thank Chintan Patel for putting this table together). Prices as of October 1, 2020.
The above chart clearly shows that the petrol and diesel prices are the highest in India. And as they say, there is no free lunch in economics. You and I are paying this higher price, not just when we buy petrol and diesel directly, but also when we pay for almost every product that is produced somewhere and delivered to where we are.