Putting electricity in GST
As the Goods and Services Tax (GST) overcomes the transitional implementation challenges, it is time to look ahead to further improving it. The impact of the highest rates has been reduced by substantially paring down commodities in the 28 per cent bracket. The simplification of procedures for small enterprises, especially those that sell to large enterprises, is under way. Bringing land and real estate into the GST is on the agenda for discussion. High priority must now also be accorded to the inclusion of electricity in GST. Why, how, and when? .
Currently, there is a bewildering multiplicity of electricity taxes that vary by states and across user categories, low for consumers, high for industrial users. Taxes levied by the states vary from 0 per cent to 25 per cent. It is an important source of revenue for them, amounting to about Rs 31,000 crore for all the states combined. On average, electricity taxes account for about 3 per cent of own tax revenues of the states, going up to close to 9 per cent in some states. States are, therefore, reluctant to give up the right to levy these taxes. But the status quo imposes costs that undermine the government’s Make in India initiative.
The most serious and obvious one is that costs to industrial users of electricity are higher because they include the taxes on inputs that have gone into the supply of electricity. These include taxes on raw materials (coal, renewables) and other equipment (solar panels and batteries). Not being part of GST means that no inputs tax credit can be claimed, which results in embedding of the tax in the final price. For the textile industry, for example, these embedded taxes amount to about 2 per cent of the price. This embedding of taxes hurts manufacturers selling to the domestic market. But they hurt, in particular, exporters of electricity-intensive products because they are not liable to any duty drawback — relief for taxes embedded in exports.
But there is a subtler way in which these embedded taxes hurt industrial buyers of electricity, creating a double whammy for them. Electricity is finally purchased by consumers and industrial users. Politics, and especially populist politics, has ensured that consumers (and other users in agriculture) pay either nothing for electricity or very little. As a result, and in order to make up for the resulting losses, discoms cross-subsidise, that is, they charge higher prices to industrial users to make up for under-charging others.
But the embedding of taxes adds an extra layer of cross-subsidisation. Industrial users must also be charged higher rates to make up for the embedded taxes that cannot be recouped from consumers. Totalling up all of these effects could lead to increased costs and lower margins of between 1-3 per cent for several industries. These margins are significant, especially for exporters who face ferocious international competition and where a 1 per cent extra cost could be fatal.
Another argument calls for the inclusion of electricity in GST. Currently, there is a large bias in favour of renewables in GST policy. Inputs to renewables generation attract a GST rate of 5 per cent while inputs to thermal generation attract higher rates of 18 per cent. Supporting renewables might be conscious policy (and also good policy) but we are in a situation where subsidisation is proliferating across policy instruments, making it difficult to quantify the overall support. As we have discovered, complexity in GST rate structure arises because it is burdened with having to meet multiple objectives. Support for renewables should be direct, conscious, and transparent. GST should not become the instrument for adding (non-transparently) to that support.
If electricity were to be included in GST, then there would be no discrimination between renewables and thermal energy because all inputs going into both forms of electricity generation would receive tax credits. GST would then become neutral between different forms of electricity generation as good tax policy should be.
Thus, the case for including electricity in the GST is compelling. The question is how? Recall that including electricity in GST would reduce or eliminate embedded taxes in electricity-using products. That means that both the central and state governments would lose revenues that would now accrue as input tax credits to the private sector. In addition, state governments would lose taxes from electricity use itself. So, there would be two sources of losses.