0.16% of India’s Population Pays 76% of Income Tax Paid by Individuals


A couple of days back, the ministry of finance published income tax data for assessment year 2015-2016. The income tax returns for the income earned during the financial year 2014-2015 were filed in the assessment year 2015-2016.

I had written a similar piece last year based on data published for the assessment ears 2013-2014 and 2014-2015. This piece is an extension of that.

We now have data for four assessment years starting with 2012-2013 and up to 2015-2016, and it makes for an interesting reading. Let’s start with Table 1.

Table 1:

Assessment yearTotal number of returns filed by individualsTotal number of individuals paying income tax

Source: incometaxindia.gov.in 

What does Table 1 tell us? It tells us very clearly that both the number of tax returns filed by individuals as well as the number of people paying tax has been growing over the years.

While, the total number of returns being filed by individuals has risen at 12.3 per cent per year, the total number of individuals paying income tax has risen at the rate of 18 per cent per year and that is clearly good news.

Now let’s take a look at the proportion of people filing income tax returns, who also pay income tax (in Table 2).

Table 2:

Assessment yearTotal number of returns filed by individualsTotal number of individuals paying income taxProportion of people filing income tax returns who also pay income tax

Source: incometaxindia.gov.in 

Table 2 clearly tells us that only half of people filing income tax returns pay income tax. This ratio is way too low. What this basically means is that the current system is so structured that it is generating a lot of work for chartered accountants and others who are in the business of filing income tax returns.

How do things look vis a vis overall population? Let’s take a look at Table 3.

Table 3:

Assessment yearTotal number of returns filed by individuals (in Crore)PopulationProportion of population filing income tax returns
(in Crore)*

* Population data sourced from World Bank.
Source: Author calculations on data sourced from incometaxindia.gov.in 

Table 3 tells us that only 3.1 per cent of the country’s population actually files income tax returns. This figure has constantly been improving. Now let’s take a look at what proportion of the country’s population which actually pays tax in Table 4.

Table 4:

Assessment yearTotal number of individuals paying income tax (in Crore)Population (in Crore)*Proportion of population paying income tax

* Population data sourced from World Bank.
Source: Author calculations on data sourced from incometaxindia.gov.in 

Hence, around 1.57 per cent of the country’s population paid any income tax in 2015-2016. While a figure of 1.57 per cent sounds atrociously low on the whole, things do not turn out as bad, once we take other factors into account.

Agricultural income is tax free. A bulk of country’s workforce is dependent on agriculture for its livelihood. The labour force participation rate of women in case of India is very low, i.e., most women don’t work for a living. Over and above this, there are the young and the old, who aren’t making any money or enough money for that matter. And India is a young country with a bulk of its population being under 25 years or age. Once we adjust for all these factors the numbers in Table 3 and Table 4 do not look so bad.

Having said that, there are inconsistencies which need to be pointed out. There were only 57,399 individuals who have a returned income of greater than Rs 1 crore. Also, there were only 1,68,318 individuals with a returned income of greater than Rs 50 lakh in the assessment year 2015-2016 (Returned Income is the total income after chapter VI-A deduction and deductions u/s 10A/10AA (wherever applicable)). This is a tad difficult to believe when we look at other data points like the number of luxury cars that Indians buy every year, the number of Indians going abroad etc. Hence, there is a proportion of the population which is not declaring its taxes properly.

Of the 2.06 crore individuals who paid tax, a bulk of taxpayers (around 1.85 crore) paid a tax of less than Rs 1.5 lakh, during the assessment year 2015-2016. Take a look at Table 5.

Table 5: Tax payable less than or equal to Rs 1.5 lakh

Assessment yearNumber of individualsTotal tax paid (in Rs Crore)Average tax paid (in Rs)

Source: Author calculations on data sourced from incometaxindia.gov.in 

So, the average tax paid by those paying a tax of less than Rs 1.5 lakh was Rs 24,133 during the assessment year 2015-2016. This basically means that the bulk of the tax is being paid by those paying a tax of greater than Rs 1.5 lakh. Let’s take a look at Table 6.

Table 6: Tax payable greater than Rs 1.5 lakh

Assessment yearNumber of individualsTax paid (in Rs Crore)Average tax paid (in Rs)

Source: Author calculations on data from www.incometaxindia.gov.in 

Now compare Table 5 with Table 6 and it is more or less clear that those paying a tax of greater than Rs 1.5 lakh during the assessment year 2015-2016, even though they are very small in number, paid the bulk of the individual income tax. Now let’s take a look at Table 7.

Table 7:

Assessment yearTotal tax paid by individualsTotal tax paid by individuals paying more than Rs 1.5 lakh tax per yearProportion

Source: Author calculations on data from www.incometaxindia.gov.in 

Hence, those paying an income tax of greater than Rs 1.5 lakh, paid 76.3 per cent of the income tax paid by individuals during the assessment year 2015-2016. It would be interesting to see what proportion of the population do they make up for. Let’s look at Table 8.

Table 8:

Assessment yearNumber of individuals who paid an income tax of greater than Rs 1.5 lakhPopulation (in Crore)Proportion of populationProportion of income tax paid by individuals

Source: Author calculations on data from www.incometaxindia.gov.in 

Hence, in the assessment year 2015-2016, 0.16 per cent of the population paid 76.3 per cent i.e. more than three-fourths of the income tax collected from individuals. Indeed, this is worrying. But what is more worrying is that India had only 1,68,318 individuals with an income of greater than Rs 50 lakh in the assessment year 2015-2016. This just doesn’t sound right.

The column was originally published on December 22, 2017.

Of Falling Real Estate Prices, Dr Arvind Panagariya and the Art of Continuing to Suck Up


Dr Arvind Panagariya, the former vice-chairman of the Niti Aayog, today in a column titled Demonetisation: Evaluating the Critics, in the Business Standard, writes: “The second avenue through which demonetisation has directly expunged unaccounted wealth is real estate…Unsurprisingly, an attack on unaccounted cash struck at the heart of this black wealth by cutting real estate prices by a quarter.”

There are multiple questions that this statement raises:

1) What is the source for this data? This isn’t exactly a conversation between two property dealers, or two prospective real estate buyers, who can quote any offhand numbers, while having a conversation. This is a statement being made by someone who was at the top of an economic institution run by the Indian government. This is a statement by an economist working in a top university in the United States.

Also, if real estate prices have fallen by 25 per cent after demonetisation, why isn’t this visible in official data sources. Take the case of Reserve Bank of India’s All India House Price Index, which has been plotted as Figure 1.

Figure 1: 

Figure 1 clearly shows that housing prices across the country have been on their way up. There has “clearly” been no dip, as Dr Panagariya claims. How do things look if we plot one-year return instead of index values? Let’s take a look at Figure 2, which does that.

Figure 2: 

Figure 2 tells us clearly that the one-year return in real estate has been falling over the last six and a half years. This trend started much before demonetisation took place. Also, how have the returns been post demonetisation? Between the end of December 2016 and June 2017 (the latest data available), real estate prices as per the All India House Price Index have gone up by 4.3 per cent. The returns between September 2016 and June 2017, have been 6.9 per cent.

Other than RBI’s All India House Price Index, there is NHB’s Residex. As of now this index has data only up to March 2017. And the one year median return between March 2016 and March 2017, as per this index, across 49 cities, was 2.8 per cent. This is very low. But where is the 25 per cent fall that Dr Panagariya has written about?

2) For a moment let’s assume that Dr Panagariya is right and real estate prices have fallen by 25 per cent. If real estate price all across the country have fallen by 25 per cent on an average, then there will be cities/town/localities where the price has fallen by more than 25 per cent. Which are these places? Can Dr Panagariya provide us with a list? This would make for a super investment right now.

Let’s say there is this town where real estate prices have fallen by 50 per cent post demonetisation. It is worth remembering that a 50 per cent loss wipes off a 100 per gain. (If the price of an asset moves from Rs 50 to Rs 100 that makes for a 100 per cent gain. When it falls back to Rs 50 that is a 50 per cent loss). If there exists such a town, it would make for a great real estate investment right now. Can Dr Panagariya provide us with names of a few such places?

3) Also, if prices have fallen by 25 per cent, why are real estate transactions not happening? Why has the total number of unsold homes of real estate companies, only continued to grow? It is worth remembering here that a 25 per cent fall within a time period of a year, is a huge fall. Falls like these in case of real estate, only happen once in a few decades. And if something like this has happened, as Dr Panagariya claims, then why aren’t people buying? Interest rates on home loans have also fallen post demonetisation.

Take a look at Figure 3. It plots the growth in home loans outstanding with banks.

Figure 3: 

Figure 3 clearly shows that the growth in home loans outstanding has fallen post demonetisation. What this means is that people are not buying as many homes as they were in the past. If prices have fallen by 25 per cent post demonetisation, people would have bought homes and the curve in Figure 3 would slope upwards i.e. people would take on more and more home loans to buy homes.

4) Further, if real estate prices have fallen by 25 per cent, as claimed by Dr Panagariya, it is time that the state governments cut the ready reckoner rates on which stamp duty needs to be paid, by a similar proportion. This should be fairly easy given that BJP governments govern most of the big states across India and a direction from the PMO should be suffice to get them to do the needful. But nothing of that sort has happened. Why hasn’t this been done till date, is a question that only Dr Panagariya can answer.

5) To conclude, it is safe to say that Dr Panagariya has just made up this data, in order to justify demonetisation. It’s a sad day today, when an Indian economist, working in one of the best American universities has had to fudge data in order to please his former political bosses.

The irony is that Dr Panagariya is no longer a part of the government. And he doesn’t really need to say things which do not hold up against data, unless, he is looking for another stint with the Modi government. That changes things.

The column originally appeared on November 13, 2017.

A Real Estate Story That Everybody Should Read


I am in Delhi these days.

And Delhi and the National Capital Region around it, as you would know, dear reader, have their share of real estate stories.

There are stories of builders who have taken the money from prospective buyers and not delivered.

There are stories about builders who have taken the money from prospective buyers and simply disappeared.

There are stories about builders who have taken the money from prospective buyers and abandoned construction midway.

There are stories about prospective buyers continuing to pay their EMIs with no idea of when their dream home will be delivered. Meanwhile, they also continue to pay rent.

There are stories about builders now demanding a bailout from the government.

All in all, the overall real estate story in Delhi and the National Capital Region, is a mess.
Nevertheless, recently I came across a slightly different sort of story, which tells us the different kind of problems that people face with real estate and why sometimes there are really no solutions to a problem.

One of my relatives, who are now very old, have lived a good part of their lives in a DDA colony in South Delhi. The flat was bought in the early 1980s at around Rs 2.5-3 lakh and is now worth close to Rs 3 crore. Of course, South Delhi is a great place to live.

All the everyday amenities from banks to vegetable vendors to milk booths to medicine shops etc., everything is within walking distance and almost everything you can think of is home-delivered.

But the relatives I am talking about here are now old and want to move to a different part of Delhi, to be close to their immediate family, which stays there. That part of Delhi is much cheaper than South Delhi. A similar sort of flat can easily be bought at around 40-50 per cent of the price in South Delhi.

If things work as smoothly, as they are supposed to in theory, this would mean selling the flat in South Delhi for around Rs 3 crore, buying a new one for around Rs 1.5 crore and paying a capital gains tax on the remaining Rs 1.5 crore. And then, they can live happily ever after.

Now only if things were as smooth as that.

As I well known, no real estate transaction can happen in Delhi-National Capital Region in full white money i.e. the full payment is made through a cheque, demand draft, bank transfer etc. A part of the transaction will always have to be carried out in black, which means a payment needs to be made in cash.

How would a Rs 3 crore sale go? Around Rs 1-1.3 crore would be paid in black. The remaining would be in white. Typically, when this happens, the black money is then used to buy more flats, and this is how the vicious cycle of black money continues.

In this case, the flat in the new locality costs around Rs 1.5 crore. Of this around Rs 50 lakh will have to be paid in black. And the remaining in white. This means that of the Rs 1-1.3 crore of the original black money received, around Rs 50-80 lakh will remain.

This is a lot of black money for someone who has never really dealt with black money. What does he do with this black money? At his age, there is no point in investing in more flats (given that the real estate sector is down in the dumps and also the fact that more money would be needed to do the same) or buying gold for that matter.

Given this conundrum, the sale is stuck. At his age, there is no possibility of a home loan as well.

In fact, this is an excellent example of a situation where an individual is asset heavy and liquidity light. Of course, in this case, he didn’t arrive at this situation because of the choices he made. Over the years, that is exactly how the situation turned out to be.

A part of Delhi, which no one really wanted to go and live in, turned out to be its most posh part, over a period of three decades and more. And given, this real estate prices sky-rocketed. A flat which cost Rs 3 lakh, was worth 100 times or Rs 3 crore, nearly 35 years later. This means a whopping return of 14 per cent per year (without taking any maintenance cost into account). In fact, at its peak price nearly five years back, the flat would have gone for anywhere between Rs 3.5-4 crore.

Of course, from the investment point of view, it has been a superb investment. But 35 years later, the situation is such that the flat cannot be sold. And this is a lesson for everyone who believes that real estate is the best way to invest.

The biggest problem with real estate is that it lacks the liquidity of other forms of investment, even though the returns might be superb. While, in this case my relatives can continue to live in this flat, so it doesn’t matter much. But there are other cases when people need liquidity to meet expenses, like the higher education of their children, their weddings, a medical emergency, and so on. In a real estate market like the one that exists today, selling a property quickly at the right price (if at all there is anything like that in Indian real estate) is never easy.

Of course, one can always take a loan against property, but then even that has to be repaid and the regular income may not be good enough to repay that loan.

This is something that everybody who swears by real estate as the best form of investment, should keep in mind.

Real estate may not have the liquidity, when you need money the most.

What happens then?

The column originally appeared on Equitymaster on October 24, 2017.



The Orwellian Economics of Modi Govt


Almost, every other day I get an email or an sms from banks asking me to link my accounts and my Aadhar number.

The email typically says: “The Prevention of Money Laundering (Maintenance of Records) Rules, 2005 (“PML Rules 2005”) have been amended with effect from June 1, 2017 to require Aadhaar for every bank account. All existing Bank accounts have to be verified with Aadhaar by the banks by 31st December,2017, failing which the accounts will become inoperative.”

At the same time, a mobile phone company also sends out reminders at regular intervals asking me to link my phone number with my Aadhar number. The couple of times I visited their office in the recent past, I have been reminded of the same.

The last time I logged on to an airline website to carry out a web-checkin, I was asked for my Aadhar number, though this was optional.

When I applied for an ISBN (International Standard Book Number) for my last book, I was asked for my Aadhar number. An Aadhar number is now required for access to a whole host of government welfare programmes. The idea is to ensure that only those who genuinely qualify for the programme have access to it.

On the whole, the idea seems to be to use Aadhar to identify those people who are not paying their share of income tax, by figuring out their spending patterns.

On August 23, 2017, a notification was introduced which brought jewellers with a turnover of more than Rs 2 crore, under the Prevent of Money Laundering Act.

The limit for reporting transactions under the Act is at Rs 50,000. Basically, anyone using cash to buy gold jewellery over Rs 50,000 had to show his or her PAN card. Before this, since December 2015, anyone buying gold above Rs 2 lakh, had to show a PAN card.
With the August notification, the limit for showing the PAN card was lowered from Rs 2 lakh to Rs 50,000. Recently, the August 23 notification was rescinded. In doing so, the limit till which gold could be bought in cash without providing any identification jumped up again to Rs 2 lakh.

This, brings multiple questions to the fore. First and foremost, when every bank account holder needs to link his bank account to the Aadhar number, why doesn’t the same rule apply to anyone buying gold using cash. When every mobile phone user is being pestered to link his mobile number to his Aadhar number, why doesn’t the same rule apply to anyone buying gold using cash.

If it is important to clearly identify bank accounts and mobile numbers, it is also important to clearly identify who is buying gold. The question that arises here is that who buys gold in cash.

As the report titled A Study in Widening of Tax Base and Tackling Black Money produced by the business lobby FICCI points out: “The black money holders invest in bullion and Jewellery to protect the value of their black money from inflationary depreciation. Cash sales in the gold and Jewellery trade gives the buyer an option to convert black money into gold and Jewellery, while it gives the trader the option of keeping his unaccounted wealth in the form of stock, not disclosed in the books or valued at less than market price.”

The point being those who have black money like to buy gold in its various forms, using cash. If cash sales of gold need to be attacked it is important that some sort of identity of the individual buying gold be established.

Nevertheless, the Narendra Modi government doesn’t seem to think like that. Different rules for different people. As George Orwell writes towards the end of his brilliant book Animal Farm: “There was nothing there now except a single Commandment. It ran: All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.”

The column was originally published in the Bangalore Mirror on October 11, 2017.

Gold Imports Surge: Are People Hedging the Risk of Another Demonetisation by Converting Black Money into Gold?


The impact of demonetisation has played out in many ways. Here is one more way: The gold imports between April and July 2017 have been nearly 2.7 times the gold imports during the same period last year.

Let’s take a look at Figure 1 which plots gold imports (in Kgs) over the last few financial years.

Figure 1: 

It is clear from Figure 1 that the gold imports have jumped up big time between April to July 2017, in comparison to last year. In fact, they are the second highest in the last five years. Take a look at Figure 2. Figure 2 plots the money spent on importing gold over the last five years.

Figure 2: 

Even in value terms significantly more gold has been imported this year than last year. The price of gold during the period April to July 2017, averaged at $1257.9 per ounce (one troy ounce equals 31.1 grams). During the same period last year, the price of gold had averaged at $1291.3 per ounce, which was slightly higher.

How do things look if we look at the calendar year instead of the financial year? Between January and July 2017, the total amount of gold imported stands at 6, 61,836 kgs. Between January and July 2016, this had stood at 3,11,938kgs. There is a clear jump in this case as well. In fact, the interesting thing is that the import of gold has been concentrated during the first five months of the calendar year, immediately after demonetisation.

What does this tell us? When and why do people actually buy gold?

The history of economics tells us that people buy gold when the faith in official paper money (in this case the Indian rupee) is low. Take the case of the period between April to July 2013. A lot of gold was bought during this period. The rate of consumer price inflation was at 9-10 per cent. Given this, a section of the population had lost faith in the Indian rupee and was hedging against inflation and buying gold.

What is happening this time around? This time around Indians are buying gold because in the aftermath of demonetisation which was carried out in November 2016, there is a feeling that the government might do it again. Given this, a portion of the black money which was held in the form of cash earlier, is now simply being converted into gold. This seems like the most logical explanation for this surge. The lower price argument doesn’t really hold because prices this year have been more or less similar to prices last year.

Of course, gold is easy to store and has never gone out of fashion. Hence, it can easily be converted into cash at any point of time.

In 2013-2014, people had lost confidence in paper money because of extremely high inflation. This time around, people have lost faith in paper money because of demonetisation. Hence, they are buying gold.

As Indians bought gold in 2013-2014 and a lot of it (close to 4,20,000 kgs, during the first four months of that financial year, as Figure 1 suggests), the demand for dollars went up. India imports almost all of the gold that it consumes. Hence, it buys gold internationally in dollars. As the demand for dollars went up, importers sold rupees and bought dollars. In the process, the rupee lost value rapidly against the dollar.

In April 2013, one dollar was worth Rs 54.23. By August 2013, it was worth Rs 67.4. The rupee simply crashed during the period. It is worth asking here that why a similar situation does not prevail right now. Why hasn’t the rupee crashed like it did when people bought lots of gold between April and July 2013?

This is because while Indians are buying gold, a lot of dollars continue to come to India through the foreign institutional investors route. These investors continue to invest in the Indian stock market and the debt market. Between April and July 2017, the foreign institutional investors have invested a little over Rs 95,000 crore in the stock and the debt market. The foreign institutional investors sell dollars and buy rupees in order to invest in the stock and the debt market. This demand for the Indian rupee has ensured that the dollar has remained stable against the rupee at around Rs 64. Hence, the demand for rupees among these investors is negating the demand for dollars among gold importers. This has led to a stable value of the rupee against the dollar.

What had happened between April and July 2013? While, the demand for gold was very high, the foreign institutional investors were selling out of India. During the period, they encashed close to Rs 27,000 crore from the stock and the debt market. In fact, the foreign institutional investors sold stocks and debt worth over Rs 60,000 crore between June and July 2013.

In order to repatriate this money abroad, they had to sell these rupees and buy dollars. This along with heavy gold buying, which was accompanied by selling of rupees and buying of dollars, pushed up the demand for the dollar, and drove down the value of the rupee.

This essentially explains why the value of the rupee had crashed in 2013-2014, and has remained stable during this financial year. Nevertheless, people are buying gold because their faith in the Indian rupee has gone down and they clearly want to hedge against the risk of another round of demonetisation.

(The column was originally published on Equitymaster on September 19, 2017).