## Why Indians Pay Such a High Price for Petrol and Diesel

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.

1) The price of diesel as of February 12 was Rs 64.87 per litre. As of October 1, it stands at Rs 70.53 per litre. This despite lower oil prices.

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 Great Fall

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.

Oil not on boil

Source: Petroleum Planning and Analysis Cell. (https://www.ppac.gov.in/content/149_1_PricesPetroleum.aspx).  *Between April and August 2020.

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.

Up, up and away.

Source: Petroleum Planning and Analysis Cell. (https://www.ppac.gov.in/content/149_1_PricesPetroleum.aspx). *Between April and June 2020.

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.

## What You Pay For When You Pay for Fuel

Narendra Modi, took over as the prime minister of the country on May 26, 2014. On that day, the global price of the Indian basket of crude oil was \$108.05 per barrel. Back then, one litre of petrol cost Rs 80 in Mumbai. Diesel in the city was being sold at Rs 65.21 per litre.

Three years have gone by since then and meanwhile, the global oil scenario has changed completely. On September 14, 2017, the price of Indian basket of crude oil was at \$54.56 per barrel, around half of what it was when Modi took over as prime minister.

At Rs 79.5 per litre, the price of petrol in Mumbai as on September 14, 2017, in Mumbai, was more or less same as it was when Modi took over as prime minister. Diesel at Rs 62.46 per litre was slightly lower.

What is happening here? While, the price of crude oil has halved, the price of petrol and diesel, which are by-products of crude oil, continues to remain more or less the same (This argument may not hold all across the country, given that different states levy different taxes and different rates of taxes on petrol and diesel).

The gain because of fall in price of oil, has been captured majorly by the central government and the state governments, by increasing the different taxes that are levied on petrol and diesel. Lately, the commission given to pumps which sell petrol and diesel, has also gone up.

A small-scale industry has emerged lately, trying to defend the high taxes that consumers pay on petrol and diesel. Here are the arguments on offer:

a) India imports 80 per cent of the oil that it consumes. Given this, prices of petrol and diesel need to be high, in order to discourage people from consuming more and more of it. The assumption is that at lower price levels, people will consume more petrol and diesel.

b) We need to respect the environment. Petrol and diesel pollute the environment, and hence, taxes on petrol and diesel need to be high.

c) The high taxes on petrol and diesel have helped the government bring down its fiscal deficit without having to cut on its expenditure. This is something that is required in an economic environment where growth is slowing down and hence, government spending needs to be strong. Fiscal deficit is the difference between what a government earns and what it spends.

d) High taxes on petrol and diesel help the government earn enough money in order to fund the physical infrastructure that the country badly needs.

e) High petrol and diesel prices push demand towards more fuel-efficient cars. Also, by taxing petrol more than diesel, the government is ensuring that the private modes of transport (which largely use petrol) are taxed more than the public modes of transport (which use diesel).

f) The oil marketing companies need the flexibility to price their products on a day to day basis. It is this flexibility that reflects in the healthy valuations that their stocks currently enjoy in the stock market.

g) High taxes help the government finance the oil marketing companies which can then sell domestic cooking gas and kerosene at lower prices.

Each of these arguments is largely correct (I mean just because a small scale industry has emerged, doesn’t mean they are wrong) except for the last one. The subsidies on domestic cooking gas and kerosene are now down to around Rs 25,000 crore, which isn’t much in comparison to the petroleum subsidy of the past years. Hence, high taxes on petrol and diesel are clearly not required to fund the subsidy.

But there is one point that these economic commentators and analysts do not talk about. High taxes on the petrol and diesel makes the government lazy and helps it to continue favouring the status quo. Allow me to elaborate. It is worth remembering here that money is fungible. Just as high taxes on petrol and diesel allow the government to fund physical infrastructure, they also allow it to do a lot of other things that a government shouldn’t be doing. Let’s look at the points one by one:

a) Between 2010-2011 and 2015-2016, Air India has lost close to Rs. 35,000 crore, and yet it continues to be run. The losses are not surprising, given that the airline business is a very competitive business and the government clearly doesn’t have the wherewithal to run it. The question is where does the money to keep bankrolling Air India come from? The high taxes on petrol and diesel.
Lately, there has been talk of selling the airline. Let’s see, if and when that happens.

b) Or take the case of Hindustan Photo Films Manufacturing Company Ltd. It is the fourth largest loss-making company among the loss making public sector units. It made losses of Rs 2,528 crore in 2015-201 Between 2004-2005 and 2015-2016, the company has made losses of close to Rs 15,000 crore. As mentioned earlier in 2015-2016, the company lost Rs 2,528 crore. It employed 217 individuals. This meant a loss of Rs 11.65 crore per employee. Where does the money to run this company come from?

c) In total, high taxes on petrol and diesel allowed the government to run 78 loss making public sector enterprises in 2015-2016. Between 2011-2012 and 2015-2016, the loss making public sector enterprises have made losses of Rs 1,33,400 crore. Where is the money to finance these losses coming from?

d) Between 2009 and now, the government has spent roughly around Rs 1,50,000 crore, recapitalising public sector banks. The public sector banks have a humungous bad loans portfolio, as they keep writing off the bad loans, their shareholders’ equity keeps coming down and the government as the largest owner, needs to recapitalise them. Bad loans are essentially loans in which the repayment from a borrower has been due for 90 days or more. Take a look at Table 1.

Table 1:

 Gross non-performing advances ratio Indian Overseas Bank 24.99% IDBI Ltd. 23.45% Central Bank of India 19.55% UCO Bank 18.83% Bank of Maharashtra 18.00% Dena Bank 17.39% United Bank of India 16.56% Oriental Bank of Commerce 14.49% Bank of India 14.20% Allahabad Bank 13.72% Punjab National Bank 13.20% Andhra Bank 12.91% Corporation Bank 12.14% Union Bank of India 11.77% Bank of Baroda 11.15% Punjab & Sind  Bank 10.80% Canara Bank 10.00%

Source: Author calculations on Indian Banks’ Association data.
As on March 31, 2017.

Table 1 tells us that 17 public sector banks have a bad loans ratio of 10 per cent or high. This basically means that of every Rs 100 of loans that they have given, a tenth or more, is not being repaid. The government currently owns 21 banks, after the merger of the associate banks of State Bank of India and the Bhartiya Mahila Bank, with the State Bank of India.

Some of these banks like the Indian Overseas Bank are in a particularly bad state. This bank has a bad loans ratio of close to 25 per cent i.e. one fourth of its loans have been defaulted on.

Where is the money to keep these banks going, coming from? In a world where money wasn’t free flowing because of high taxes on petrol and diesel, banks like the Indian Overseas Bank, UCO Bank, United Bank of India, Dena Bank, etc., would have already been shutdown or perhaps been sold off. These banks are too small on the lending front to make any substantial difference to the total lending carried out by banks in India. But their losses do hurt the government a lot. Every extra rupee that goes towards funding these banks is taken away from something more important areas like education, health and agriculture.

e) Also, given the different taxes implemented by different states, the price of petrol and diesel tend to vary across the country. Take the case of the government of Maharashtra charging a drought cess of Rs 9 every time one litre of petrol is bought in the state. Why is this cess even there during a time when there is really no drought in the state? It is just an easy way for the government to raise money. Most people don’t even know that they are paying for something like this, every time they buy petrol.

Hence, to introduce a sense of equality among citizens living in different states, petrol and diesel need to be taxed under the GST (They are already a part of it, with zero percent tax rates).

The high taxes from petrol and diesel also helps the government to continue running many inefficient firms as well as banks. Any plan of closing down these firms and banks is likely to met with a lot resistance and also, lead to a lot of hungama (for the lack of a better word). Given this, it makes sense for the government to take the easy way out, maintain the status quo and continue running these firms and banks.

As Donald J Boudreaux writes in The Essential Hayek: “People’s intense focus on their interests as producers, and their relative inattention to their interests as consumers, leads to press for government policies that promote and protect the interests of producers.”

Any idea of shutting down or selling an inefficient public sector enterprise or banks, is likely to be met with a lot of protests from the employees as well as the trade unions representing them. The political parties are likely to join in. Hence, it is easy for the government to maintain the status quo and not make any difficult decisions.

But the money that goes towards keeping these individuals happy, is taken away from other areas like education, agriculture, health etc. People who lose out because of this, do not have the kind of representation that people working for government run firms have.

Of course, all this does not mean that there should be no taxes on petrol and diesel. With the right to govern comes the right to tax people. But these taxes should be at a reasonable level. Also, with lower taxes, people will spend more money on personal consumption and that will help economic growth. And the impact of people spending money, on economic growth, is always greater than that of the government.

To conclude, it is worth remembering that every coin has two sides, and it doesn’t always land up heads.

A slightly different version of this column appeared on Pragati on September 19, 2017.