Certain states have sought real-time access to annual Goods and Services Tax (GST) returns and e-way bills in order to check tax evasion, which can potentially address the ongoing fund crunch and help compensate states for their revenue shortfall, two officials aware of the matter said requesting anonymity.
Currently, these data are stored in the GST Network, which compiles reports and sends them to all the states and Union territories with a time lag.
Kerala finance minister Thomas Isaac confirmed the development and said,“Kerala may not require compensation cess at all if it is permitted to have real-time access to annual returns and e-way bills, so that tax evasion could be curbed,” Isaac said.
According to Isaac, ineffective tax collection is one of the three key reasons for tardy GST revenue collections across the country and real-time information would help many states nab evaders through the use of data analytics. The other two reasons, according to him, are the economic slowdown and steep cuts in GST rates.
“I will raise this issue in the GST Council,” he said. The GST Council is the apex decision-making body of the federal indirect tax structure that was rolled out on July 1, 2017. It is chaired by the Union finance minister and has finance ministers of states and Union territories as members.
Officials said states’ access to real-time data could be possible if they formally raised the issue at the council. Several states have been raising the issue of large-scale GST evasion at the council. In August last year, West Bengal finance minister Amit Mitra estimated GST evasion at ₹1 lakh crore and demanded an exclusive meeting on the issue.
Owing to inadequate compensation cess funds, the Centre has not yet compensated states for their revenue shortfall over two months – October and November. Ideally, that should have been paid by the second week of December. Even in the past, there was a delay of about two months in paying compensation for August and September, which was paid just two days ahead of the 38th GST Council meeting on December 18, 2019.
An amount of ₹35,298 crore was released on December 16 to pay states for their dues in August and September. The GST law assures states 14% growth in their revenue for five years and the Centre is committed to meeting any shortfall in revenue through cess money, which is levied on luxury goods and sin products such as liquor, cigarettes and tobacco products.
The finance minister of another state, who did not wish to be named, said that there was scope for improvement in GST compliance but that would not be able to meet the entire revenue gap. Commenting on the proposal on real-time access to GSTN data, the minister said, “I doubt this will eliminate the revenue deficit. The ball is always in our court , provided those at the helm allow it to be dealt with efficiently.”
Experts said access to data would certainly help states in better compliance. Common access could be given to states through login IDs and passwords. Pratik Jain, partner and leader, indirect tax, at PwC India, said, “Logistically it should not be difficult.”
The Union government is making all-out efforts to plug revenue leakages of both central GST (CGST) and state GST (SGST). It will hold a national conference on January 7 to address the issue, the officials cited above said. This conference is being organised to curb fraud and evasion and check fake input-tax credits.