A senior finance executive in a private equity firm was visibly worried after he got a call from goods and services tax (GST) officer. The officer on the other end wanted to know more about the construction business that the company was involved in. It took some time for the executive to explain that the word “stone” in the brand name had nothing to do with the business the firm was into.
Few kilometres away from the PE firm’s office in Mumbai, the CFO of a finance company — that’s part of a major conglomerate — was nervous too. The CFO was just back from a meeting with the company’s GST assessing officer, and it left him in knots.
“How does one explain credit swap ratio, private placement, and other debt instruments in Hindi?” he asked his chartered accountant who had accompanied him. The GST officer too had some queries about some transactions that were carried out in the past few months.
As the government assigned GST assessing officers from a combined pool of erstwhile Sales Tax, Excise and Value Added Tax (VAT) officers, many companies are running scared. Earlier, state officers –mainly VAT — only dealt with manufacturing companies and service tax, and excise officials dealt with service companies including banks, PE firms, NBFCs and insurance companies.
But under GST — the common indirect tax — that distinction has disappeared and all officers now fall under one umbrella. So in several cases, erstwhile VAT officials have been asked to assess PE firms, banks and finance companies.
Many of these firms are rushing to their tax consultants and desperately asking them if they can in anyway change their assessing officers.
“There’s no mechanism prescribed by the legislation that enables taxpayers to voice their views on whether they would prefer being assessed by the existing authorities.
Several service providers, whose business models are well known to the central authorities and have now been assigned to the state authorities, are apprehensive that the state authorities will take time to develop expertise on taxation of services,” said MS Mani, Partner, Deloitte India.
Industry trackers say that for indirect taxes, the importance of assessment officers become crucial and dealing with them is not just an annual affair like in the case of income tax. “One has to deal with officials for refunds, credits, monthly taxes, etc. The worry is many VAT officials will take some time before they could understand nitty-gritty of our business,” the senior finance executive in the PE firm said.
The government has used a formula for allocation of assessment officers and dividing work among central and state officers. And this is worrying not just for PE firms or banks, but also some of the other traders.
Take the instance of an Indian shoe manufacturer that has a turnover of about Rs 1,000 crore: the manufacturer has got a clean chit from the VAT officials for the past five years, but is now worried about the heightened scrutiny.
Another diamond exporter based in Crawford Market in Mumbai has also sent out an SOS to his tax advisors. The exporter, like the shoe manufacturer, wants former state officers to assess his accounts, and not central officers.
The manufacturer has asked his tax advisors to figure out a way to change his assessing officer back to what they were. Many say that these worries are somewhat unfounded. “Many companies have been approaching and making pleas of changing their assessing officers, which is not possible. Every officer has undergone training and there is no need to worry,” a government official in the know clarified.
“Most former VAT officials had until now dealt with indirect taxes on goods and they would now be dealing with services. Although many of these officials were given training, there would be a learning curve and this has worried several services companies that have been assigned to state authorities,” said Sachin Menon, national head, indirect tax, KPMG India.
The worries may not be unfounded. Tax experts point out that indirect tax is a complex subject. “One of my clients, an IT firm, had received a notice because the tax officer wanted a copy of an airfare receipt,” he laughs. “However, I would say many officers would go easy on companies whose business models they don’t understand, and it may just be a good thing.”
But not everyone is convinced as some officers are already asking questions which are making some companies jittery. Take the example of a law firm. The tax officer wanted to know about each transaction leading to revenue of the firm (although law firms are exempted from GST). The officer wanted to know how come the head of the law firm was charging a fee of Rs 2 lakh for “merely talking for half an hour” from a client, but not charging anything from another client with whom she had spoken for two hours.
“It’s not the law alone, the procedure of indirect taxes, especially GST, is complex. It would have been great if officers who have no experience were allotted smaller companies or firms for initial few years,” a senior tax advisor said.