From Yatin’s Desk: Income escaping assessment – A revamped law on reassessment proceedings

As the dust settles and the excitement subsides over Budget 2021 announcements, it is now an opportune time to examine the fine print of tax proposals. One such proposal which have drawn considerable attention and has the effect of substantially rewriting the law relates to the provision of Income Escaping Assessment i.e. Reassessment Proceedings.

A Look back at the extant provisions

The extant law relating to reassessment are codified under S. 147, to S. 153 of the Income Tax Act, 1961 (‘the Act’). The provisions enable the Assessing Officer (‘AO’) who has ‘reason to believe’ that an income has escaped assessment to reopen concluded assessment years to reassess the escaped income and any other income which comes to his notice subsequently in the course of such proceedings. However, where the assessee has been subject to scrutiny assessment in relation to a year, no reassessment can be made beyond a period of 4 years from the end of relevant assessment year (‘AY’) unless the assessee has failed to ‘disclose fully and truly all material facts necessary for his assessment’ for the year. Where the income likely to have escaped amounts to Rs. 1 lac or more, assessment can be reopened upto 6 years from the end of relevant AY[1]. Before making any reassessment, the AO is required to ‘record his reasons’ for reopening the assessment and serve a notice requiring the assessee to file a tax return. Re-opening of assessment beyond a period of 4 years requires sanction of the Principal Chief Commissioner/Chief Commissioner/Principal Commissioner/Commissioner.

Reopening of assessment – an evergreen controversy  

Reassessment proceedings, often, have been challenged in writ proceedings before the High Courts on the ground that the notice for reassessment lacks legal validity on account of failure by the AO to follow due process of law enshrined in the provisions and established under common law.  Rather than the merits of concealment, courts are overwhelmed with cases to decide upon the sustainability of the core issue of initiation of reassessment i.e. whether the AO had ‘reasons to believe’, did he ‘record his reasons’ appropriately, did the assessee fail to ‘disclose fully and truly all material facts necessary for his assessment’, was proper ‘sanction’ of the appropriate authorities taken, etc.

The Hon’ble Supreme Court in the case of GKN Driveshafts (India) Ltd. vs. ITO & Ors. has laid that when a notice for reopening of assessment u/s 148 of the Act is issued, the proper course of action for the assessee is to file the return and, if he so desires, to seek reasons for issuing the notices. The AO is bound to furnish reasons within a reasonable time. On receipt of reasons, the assessee is entitled to file objections to issuance of notice and the AO is bound to dispose the same by passing a speaking order.

Recently the Hon’ble Supreme Court in the case of New Delhi Television Limited v DCIT (Civil Appeal No. 1008 Of 2020), in the context of disclosure of ‘fully and truly all material facts necessary for his assessment’ has held that the obligation of the assessee is to disclose all primary facts before the AO and he is not required to give any further assistance to the AO by disclosure of other facts.  It is for the AO at this stage to decide what inference should be drawn from the facts of the case.  The court went on to hold that non-disclosure of other facts which may be termed as secondary facts is not necessary.

Further, numerous court decisions have repeatedly stated that while the AO has to record reasons for reopening, there should be proper application of mind and it should not just be a mechanical process.

As the reality stands, proper reopening in the manner provided under law has remained wanting. The courts have over and again expressed anguish over the mechanical approach of reopening assessment without adherence to the provisions which have resulted, more often than not, reassessment proceedings being quashed on the issue of proper exercise of jurisdiction itself.

Budget proposal 2021 – revamp of reassessment procedure

The Finance Minister brought smiles by announcing in her budget speech the proposal to reduce time-limit for reopening of assessment to 3 years from the present 6 years, and in serious cases where there is evidence of concealment of income in a year of Rs. 50 lakh or more, upto 10 years. However, on examining the details, one can observe that far-reaching changes have been proposed to the entire scheme of reassessment.

The proposals substitute the exiting provisions of S. 147 with a new section which pari materia contain similar provisions to the extent enabling the AO to assess the escaped income and any other income which comes to his notice subsequently in the course of proceedings. The new substituted S. 148 however makes a significant departure from the existing provisions which put the onus upon the AO to form a belief that an income has escaped assessment.  The new provisions propose to provide a monitored criterion, having application across jurisdiction and assesses, to establish when the AO would be considered to have information which suggests that the ‘income chargeable to tax has escaped assessment’.

Defined meaning of expression ‘income chargeable to tax has escaped assessment’

The expression, forming the basis for triggering reassessment proceedings has now been defined in a restrictive manner to mean –

(i) any information flagged in the case of the assessee for the relevant assessment year in accordance with the risk management strategy formulated by the Central Board of Direct Taxes (CBDT) from time to time. Such flagging would largely be done by the computer based system;

(ii) any final objection raised by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India to the effect that the assessment in the case of the assessee for the relevant assessment year has not been made in accordance with the provisions of this Act.

In case of Search & Seizure (S. 132), Survey (S. 133A), Requisition of books of accounts, etc relating to the assessee (S. 132A)  or where money, bullion, jewellery or other valuables articles are sized in case of another person but belong to the assessee or books of accounts or documents seized or requisitioned in case of another person pertain to the assessee or contain information related to the assessee, the AO is ‘deemed to have information suggesting escapement of income’ chargeable to tax for 3 AY preceding the AY relevant to the year in which the aforesaid proceedings is conducted (i.e. 4 preceding financial years). These provisions principally seek to simplify and align the special procedure presently applicable to matters relating to search & seizure etc., with the new procedure for reassessment.

It is pertinent to note that the information flagged in accordance with the risk management strategy should necessarily pertain to ‘the assessee’ and thus it appears that information flagged in the case of thirds party, even if implicating the assessee cannot be made a basis of issuance of notice. Perhaps it may have to be seen whether the mechanism to be formulated by the CBDT ensures checks and balances to identify such delinquent taxpayers also.

Procedure to be followed before issuing notice for reassessment

The new provisions further codify the procedure to be followed by the AO before issuing a notice for reassessment. The provisions required the AO to:

  • Conduct any enquiry, if required, with prior sanction of the specified authority, with respect to the information suggesting escapement of income;
  • Provide the assessee an opportunity of being heard by serving a notice to show cause within such time (being not less than 7 days and not exceeding 30 days) as to why a notice under section 148 should not be issued on the basis of information suggesting escapement of chargeable income and results of enquiry conducted, if any;
  • Consider the reply of assessee, if any, furnished and basis the material including reply of the assessee, decide whether a notice is to be issued by passing an order, with the prior approval of specified authority, within 1 month from the end of the month in which the reply referred to in received/ time allowed to furnish a reply expires.

The aforesaid procedure is not required to be followed in cases relating to search and seizure, or where books of account, other documents or any assets are requisitioned under section 132A, etc. (i.e. situations where AO is deemed to have information suggesting escapement of assessment.)

Time limit for issuance of reassessment notice

The new provisions reduce the time-limit for re-opening of assessment to 3 years from the end of relevant AY. For instance, in relation FY 2017-18 corresponding to AY 2018-2019, the reassessment proceedings can be opened only upto 31 March 2022 (being 3 years from the end of relevant AY). FY 2016-17 and prior years will henceforth be barred by limitation if a notice is issued after 31 March 2021 (as against FY 2013-14 and prior years under existing law). In case where the AO has in his possession books of accounts or other documents or evidence which reveal that the income chargeable to tax, ‘represented in the form of assets’, which has escaped assessment amounts to Rs. 50 lacs or more, the assessment can be re-opened upto 10 years.

Grandfathering period of limitation for AY 2021-22 and prior years

The new reassessment provisions are applicable from April 1, 2021. The provisions grandfather issuance of notice for reopening of assessment for financial years (FY) ending till 31 March 2021 upto the end of 6 assessment years relevant to such assessment year (for which notice is issued) as prescribed under the existing provisions. This would imply that if a notice for reassessment was to be issued in FY 2021-22, notice for reassessment can be issued only for FY 2017-18 and subsequent years (i.e. 3 years limitation under new provisions). Further, if it is a case where the quantum of income escaped is Rs.50 lacs or more, notice for reassessment can be issued only for FY 2015-16 and subsequent years on account of grandfathering provisions. The extended period of 10 years would not apply in such case.

Analysing the changes

The proposals, in all fairness are in the right direction. Reduction of period of limitation from 6 to 3 years would provide much desired certainty and closure to a large section of taxpayers. Further restricting reopening based on risk management strategy of CBDT and objections raised by CAG will bring an end to the often-abused powers of reopening exercised by AO, typically at the fag end of the limitation period. By providing a clear mechanism of inquiry, issuance of notice and its timeframe, the proposal will, to a major extent, aid in streamlining the procedure. The unpleasant surprise of receiving reassessment notice on the last day of the financial year will now be a thing of the past given that the new provisions require a detailed procedure to be followed and opportunity to be granted to the assessee to provide his reply before issuance of notice.  

The proposal for extended 10 years limitation where the alleged income, ‘represented in the form for assets’, has escaped assessment exceeds ‘Rs. 50 lacs or more’, principally seem reasonable. Prima-facie, it appears that since the revelation of escaped income has to be ascertained from ‘the books of accounts or other documents or evidence in possession of the AO’, this may typically apply to cases of search and seizure, survey, requisition of books, etc. However there seems to be some ambiguity which could have far reaching implications.

The new provision in so far as relate to matters of search & seizure, requisition of books etc. prescribe that where the aforesaid proceeding are initiated, the AO shall be deemed to have information suggesting escapement of chargeable income for 3 AY immediately preceding AY relevant to the FY in which such proceedings are undertaken. Thus, for instance, if search proceedings are initiated against an assessee in FY 2021-22 (relevant AY being 2022-23), income will be deemed to have been concealed for 3 immediately preceding AY i.e. AY 2019-20, AY 2020-21& AY 2021-22, (corresponding to FY 2018-19, FY 2019-2020 & FY 2020-21). Thus, notice would be issued for all the 3 years. Consider this in light of the operative provision which prescribes that where income chargeable to tax has escaped assessment for any assessment year, the AO shall reassess such income for such assessment year. The combined reading of law appears to suggest that in case of aforesaid matters, reassessment proceedings can be undertaken only for 3 years prior to the year in which search proceedings are initiated. If this was to hold good, the question arises whether the extended period of 10 year is really redundant for search & seizure/survey/requisition of books, etc. matters?

This leads to the next pertinent question – in which situations will the 10-year limitation period apply?

The limitation period beyond 3 year and upto 10 year is applicable where the AO ‘is in possession’ of books of accounts or other documents or other evidence which reveal escapement of income chargeable to tax and represented in the form of assets. Ordinarily, AO obtains possession of bocks of accounts/other documents/evidence in proceedings relating to search & seizure/survey/requisition of books, etc. matters. As discussed above, given the provisions as presently stated, one possible reading is that reassessment proceedings can only be undertaken for 3 years prior to the year in which search proceedings, etc are initiated. Would this imply that the extended period of 10 years would apply to matters other than search & seizure/survey/requisition of books, etc.?

In light of the aforesaid, the expression “Assessing Officer has in his possession books of accounts or other documents or evidence which reveal that…”, a necessary condition for exercising extended limitation of 10-year, merits consideration. Would it therefore mean that the documents gathered during regular assessment proceedings may well be regarded as relevant ‘documents or evidence’ being in the possession of the AO. ‘Books of accounts’ are typically not given in possession during assessment proceedings, and therefore how it fits into the scheme of things remains a grey area. Further, would the information mined and provided under the ‘risk mitigating strategy’ of CBDT also be regarded as ‘evidence’ in possession of the AO.

While this may still be debatable, any such inference would be a huge damper as it would now enable reopening assessment for 10 years (subject to Rs. 50 lacs threshold) as against 4 year under the existing law even where the assessee has made full and true disclosure of material facts during the course of prior assessment. Take for instance a case where risk management strategy of CBDT flags substantial increase in loans and advances or investments as a data point for triggering reassessment. The same would logically have been disclosed in the balance sheet. In such a situation, inspite of such disclosure, there could perhaps be possibility to reopen reassessment proceedings upto 10 year (subject to monetary threshold), effectively giving the CBDT a 10-year timeframe to refine its data intelligence and risk-based criterion. This would certainly be an area of concern.

Overall, it is encouraging to note a transformational change in the provisions relating to reassessment proceedings. There is a fundamental shift from an obscure and discretionary regime to systematic and risk-based criterion applicable uniformly across jurisdictions and taxpayers, without bias and subjectivity. It will however be interesting to see how the authorities go about enforcing the extended period of limitation given the ambiguity involved. One can hope the same is not enforced against the interest of taxpayer, specifically taking a liberal interpretation of 10 years extended limitation period, which otherwise will be a huge disappointment.   

[1] Extended period of 16 years is prescribed in case of escaped income in relation to an asset located outside India.

Yatin can be reached at yatin.sharma@aureuslaw.com. Views are personal. 

From Yatin’s Desk: Delhi High Court favorably rules on alternate Writ remedy against DRP directions

The Delhi High Court (HC), in a recent ruling in the case of P.D.R SOLUTIONS FZC has allowed the Writ petition filed by the petitioner and set aside the order of the Dispute Resolution Panel (DRP) holding that the DRP erred in not taking into consideration all the material and contentions furnished by the petitioner before the DRP. The matter was remanded back to the DRP for considering the objections raised by the petitioner in detail and for passing a fresh order on merits by giving reasons and findings. To put in perspective, the petitioner was a UAE tax resident company engaged in the business of selling domain names, providing web hosting services & server space to clients. The petitioner had claimed a non-taxable position under India-UAE DTAA , which was one of the objection raised before the DRP. The DRP however, without examining the objection, passed an adverse direction following the decision of the Income Tax Appellate Tribunal (ITAT) in case of GoDaddy.com, taxability in which case was determined only under the domestic tax laws.

As a norm, Writ remedies are generally not entertained when there is alternate appellate remedy available to the taxpayer. However, in this case the HC observed that since no assessment order had yet been passed by the Assessing officer (AO), the alternate remedy was not available as yet. Further, the DRP did not adjudicate petitioner’s categorical objections on the taxability under the India-UAE DTAA which violated the principles of natural justice, there was a fundamental error relating to the exercise of jurisdiction and the approach of the DRP rendered the entire process of the dispute resolution as per the scheme of law farcical.

In the ordinary course, a taxpayer would be required to go through the tedious process of litigation – filing appeal before the next level appellate forum (ITAT) against the final order once issued by the AO (based on DRP direction). In a matter like this where the DRP has not examined the technical merits of the case, generally the ITAT would remand the matter back to  AO/DRP for consideration on merits. Procedurally, this may take substantial time, perhaps years, before appeal is considered by the ITAT. Given the favourable consideration by HC at the draft order stage (where only DRP direction has been passed), there may now be another opportunity for tax payer to perhaps explore the Writ option and expedite their litigation where there is a blatant non considerations of the objection raised before the DRP. Having said that, one needs to take note (as observed by the HC) that not every order, where there is a non-application of mind, would become open to challenge under Writ jurisdiction, but only fundamental error which are glaring and noticeable.

The HC has made a fine balance in all fairness and brings forth an alternate remedy where the taxpayer is aggrieved against DRP direction, albeit which may be considered judiciously in exceptional circumstances.

From Yatin’s Desk: Government clarifies on proposed residency rule for Indian Citizens

The Finance Bill (FB) 2020 has proposed a significant change by regarding an Indian citizen (who otherwise is not resident in India under the basis stay rule of 182/120 days or more) as ‘deemed resident’ if the individual is ‘not liable to tax in any other country’ by reason of his domicile or residence or other criteria of similar nature. Memorandum to the FB 2020 explains the intent by stating that the change is proposed to address the practice by individuals to arrange affairs in a fashion such that he is not liable to tax in any country or jurisdiction during a year. Such arrangements are typically employed by high net worth individuals to avoid paying taxes to any country/ jurisdiction on income they earn. The change, at first sight, is bound to give jitters to certain category of citizens who are genuinely employed in tax free countries, for instance UAE which does not have personal income tax.

It will be interesting to take note of the text proposing the change which states as follows – “an individual, being a citizen of India, shall be deemed to be resident in India in any previous year, if he is not liable to tax in any other country or territory by reason of his domicile or residence or any other criteria of similar nature.”;

The use of the expression “by reason of his domicile or residence” is intriguing given the effect could have perhaps been achieved simply by specifying that ‘a citizen of India shall be deemed to be resident in India if he is not liable to tax in any other country’. One wonders whether the use of expression “by reason of his domicile or residence” gives some scope for argument that the deeming residency rule may not apply to citizens where non-taxability is on account of general exclusion of ‘Individual’ from taxation and not on account of lack of meeting threshold of domicile/residence? The debate may have just begun and will certainly open another area of protracted litigation.

While the analysis continues, one way to wriggle out of this conundrum is to take shelter of ties breaker rule under tax treaties, which is again a complex exercise involving interpretations. It will further be pertinent to take note that individuals qualifying as “resident but not ordinarily resident” (RNOR) are not taxable in relation to income which accrues or arises outside India unless it is derived from a business controlled or a profession setup in India. As further proposed in FB 2020, a person will qualify as “RNOR” in India in any previous year, if he has been a non-resident in India in 7 out of 10 previous years preceding that year. Thus, even if an individual is regarded as a “deemed resident” under the new framework from FY 2020-2021, he may still qualify as “RNOR“ thereby safeguarding income accruing outside India from India taxation during the years “RNOR” status is maintained. The 7/10 rule for RNOR status while provides some comfort to citizens who have been settled overseas for over 7 years, this will have far reaching implications for recent emigrants.

The government is ceased of the issue and to its credit has issued a press release clarifying that in case of an Indian citizen who becomes ‘deemed resident’ of India under this proposed provision, income earned outside India by him shall not be taxed in India unless it is derived from an Indian business or profession. Further clarification is expected to be incorporated in the relevant provision of law. Hope the government also ensures there is no associated filing/reporting burden cast on the overseas citizens.

Whether it is at all worthwhile to change the status quo only for targeting a few HNI’s misusing the law..perhaps not!

From Yatin’s Desk: Non-resident taxpayers get partial breather from filing Indian tax returns

Filing of Indian income tax return by non-residents earning passive income in the nature of royalty, fee for technical services (FTS) and interest, subjected to WHT in India, has been a sore point for non-resident tax payers. Such taxpayers either being oblivious of the requirement or otherwise regarding such compliance as an unnecessary burden, in many instances have not been filing the tax return in India. The Government over the last 2-3 years has been focusing on ensuring compliance, even going to the extent of issuing notices for reassessment and making penal provisions stringent to enforce compliance by delinquent tax payers. In a reversal, the Finance Bill (FB) 2020 now proposes to exempts non-residents from tax filing obligation, though with limitations.

Under the extant provisions, non-resident tax payers earning interest and dividend income are exempted from filing tax returns provided appropriate WHT has been deducted [at rate applicable under Double Tax Avoidance Agreement (DTAA) or domestic tax law – as beneficial]. Tax payers earning FTS & royalty income are mandatorily required to file tax return, even if income has been subject to WHT. FB 2020 proposes to materially change this requirement by providing the non-residents an exemption from tax filing in relation to FY 2019-2020 and subsequent years. The exemption will be available where the income is in the nature of royalty/FTS (taxable on gross basis), interest and dividend and WHT has been deducted at the rate prescribed under the domestic tax law (Act), if higher than the rate applicable under DTAA.

For instance, WHT rate for Royalty/FTS in most DTAA is 10% vis-à-vis 10.92% (for foreign companies) under the Act. The exemption from filing will be applicable if WHT has been made at 10.92%. While difference is not stark with respect to Royalty/FTS and non-residents may perhaps consider WHT deduction at higher rate to avail the benefit, adopting the same approach for interest and dividend income will have its limitation. General rate of WHT applicable on interest/dividend income is  21.84% (peak rate for foreign companies) as against 10%/15% applicable under most DTAA [certain categories of interest income is subject to lower WHT of 5% under Act e.g. interest on foreign currency loan, rupee denominated bonds, etc.]. Significant difference in WHT rates would be a dampener leaving non-resident tax payers with limited scope of benefiting from the proposed non-filing regime.

The budget proposal has made a cross-over perhaps benefiting non-resident tax payers earning FTS/royalty income (given lower arbitrage between domestic and DTAA WHT rates) while obligating those earning interest/dividend income to file tax return if they wish to take benefit of lower rates under DTAA. The provisions also leave another area unaddressed i.e. with regard to undertaking transfer pricing compliance even where there is no filing obligation (in absence of specific carve out). Non compliance has significant penal implications.

The Government has apparently taken back, to an extent, what it proposed to give by way of relief to non-resident taxpayers. It may not be ease of compliance yet !

From Yatin’s Desk: Income Tax Settlement Scheme – An opportunity to close tax litigation

Update: 22.02.2020 – The tax settlement scheme which was initially proposed to cover litigation pending before Commissioner (appeals), Tax Tribunal, High Court, Supreme Court and international arbitration as on 31 January 2020 is expected to also cover matters under review by Dispute Resolution Panel (DRP), Revision applications before Commissioner and orders for which timeline for filing appeal has not expired as on 31 January 2020. The Government is going all guns blazing to make this scheme a success. A great opportunity for litigants.

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The Finance Minister, in her budget speech introducing the Finance Bill 2020 had announced bringing a direct tax settlement scheme with the intent of reducing over 4.8 lacs direct tax cases pending before various appellate authorities. In furtherance of the announcement, “The Direct Tax Vivad Se Vishwas Bill, 2020” has been introduced in the Parliament for consideration. The same will become effective from the date to be notified post approval by the parliament and presidential assent.

The scheme provides an opportunity to settle arrears of tax against appeals pending as on 31 January 2020 before the appellate forums [Commissioner (Appeal), Income Tax Appellate Tribunal, High Court and Supreme Court]. Where the arrears relates to disputed tax and interest & penalty on such disputed tax, there is a complete waiver of interest and penalty on payment of disputed tax by 31 March 2020. Payment beyond 31 March 2020 but within the last date (to be notified), will require additional payments of 10% of the disputed tax. Further where the tax arrears relates to disputed interest, penalty or fee, there will be a waiver of 75% of such amount if paid by 31 March 2020 and 70% where payment made beyond 31st March 2020 till the last date to be specified. The scheme further provided for immunity from prosecution.

The scheme requires the taxpayer to file a declaration before the designated Commissioner of Income tax who will within a period of 15 days from the date of receipt grant a certificate containing particular of tax arrears and the amount of tax to be paid. The taxpayer will thereafter be required to pay the tax determined within 15 days from the date of receipt of the certificate and intimate the payment thereof to the authorities. On issue of certificate, pending appeal before the Commissioner (Appeal) and Income tax Appellate Tribunal will be deemed to be withdrawn. With regard to appeals before High Court/Supreme Court or where proceedings for arbitration, conciliation or mediation have been initiated, the taxpayer will be required to withdraw the appeals. Rules and forms in relation to the scheme are yet to be notified.

The scheme leaves some open questions such as eligibility of tax payers who are yet to file appeal as on 31 January 2020 (within the timeline prescribed), impact on appeals deemed to be withdrawn before the appellate authorities upon issue of certificate where the taxpayer is unable to pay the liability with the 15 day timeline, adjustment of past pre-deposits, etc. Hopefully some FAQ’s will clarify on such aspect. Further, given the 15 days payment timeline, this may be a challenge for foreign companies not having operative bank account in India to facilitate money transfer. The Government may consider a mechanism to facilitate this.

Overall the tax settlement scheme is a welcome move by the government to reduce pending litigation. Tax payers should critically review their litigation exposure and avail the opportunity to get closure specifically where exposure of interest (due to long pending disputes), penalty and prosecution is high.

From Yatin’s Desk: MAT credit dilemma under 25% corporate tax rate option

In light of last week’s historical reduction in the corporate tax rates applicable during FY 2019-20, existing domestic companies (not availing tax exemptions/specified deductions) have the option to avail reduced corporate tax rate of ≈25%. Such companies have also been exempted from applicability of Minimum Alternate Tax (MAT). Companies not opting for such scheme will continue to be taxed at the current rate (≈29%/35%) and subject to MAT, albeit at the reduced rate of ≈ 17.5% vis-a-vis 21.5%.

In absence of MAT application to such companies or any change in MAT credit provisions specifically permitting set-off of MAT credit against 25% liability, the debate will continue for the next few days on the entitlement to set of unutilized MAT credit. However, if the view emerges against the set-off, it will be vital for companies to consider their MAT credit position before jumping into the perceptibly lucrative 25% tax regime. As a big picture, so long the companies have sufficient MAT credit, the liability can be restricted to 17.5% (MAT liability) by setting off excess liability computed (at general rate of 29%/35%) against MAT credit entitlement. Accordingly, it may be beneficial for companies to continue with the existing regime till the MAT credit is completely absorbed. There is always the option to exercise the 25% regime in future.

While the taxpayers do their math, it will be worthy if the government clarifies its position.

From Yatin’s Desk: Withholding tax (TDS) default, no more business as usual

Indian tax laws mandate payers to withhold taxes at source on payments to residents (in case of specified payments) and also non-residents (where their income is taxable in India). Non-compliance has penal consequences. While failure to withhold tax has interest and penalty implications (i.e. financial costs), consequences are severe in case of non-deposit or late deposit of tax collected leading to additional prosecution implications (financial+ criminal implications). Given the humongous amount of data collated by the Revenue Authorities and use of data analytic, it is not unusual to find show cause notices being issued to defaulter now days. However what should raise alarm for the defaulters is the fact that where the default relates to non/delayed deposit of taxes leading to prosecution proceedings, the Magistrate Courts are taking a serious view on the matter with defaulters being sentenced to imprisonment.

One recent case before the Ballard Pier Magistrate Court (Mumbai), related to a delayed payments of approx. INR 850K, which was paid with interest and also penalty. The Magistrate Court disregarded the plea of financial constraint and proceeded to convict the defaulter sentencing to 3 months imprisonment. Though, the decision is appealable before higher Appellate Courts, one needs to take note that such proceedings are highly complex, time consuming and financially expensive. Take for instance this specific matter – it related to withholding default in financial year 2009-10, criminal complaint before Magistrate Court was filed in 2004 and after almost 30 odd hearings/adjournments before the Magistrate Court, the proceedings concluded in April 2019; a 10 year saga, which will further continue for years before higher Courts.

It is also relevant to take note that where the defaulter is a Company, the direct impact is on the directors, who generally are proceeded against leaving it for them to defend their innocence. A clear message – by no means delay or fail to deposit taxes deducted if you want to be on the right side of law, else don’t complain of government action!!

From Yatin’s Desk: Changes proposed to the rules for attribution of income to Permanent Establishment

Attribution of profits to a Permanent Establishment (PE) of a Multinational Enterprises (MNE) in India has been a commonly ligated matter and marred with uncertainty. The Indian tax administration has placed for public comments report of the Committee constituted to examine the existing scheme of profit attribution to PE, with the intent of framing guidelines for profit attribution, bringing certainty and transparency. While the debate on the proposals will surely continue for long, the document is a valuable read for India’s position which highlight India reservation to the authorized OECD approach for PE income attribution.

The Committee in its report emphasizes the fact that the Indian tax treaties are predominantly based on UN Model Convection which under Article 7 legitimizes attribution of profits to a PE on the basis of apportionment of the total profits of the enterprise to its various parts. Such methods is adoptable where profits cannot be determined through a direct method i.e. based on verifiable books of accounts prepared as per acceptable accounting standards. In contrast, Article 7 of OECD model convention post 2010 advocates the approach of allocation taking into account the functions performed, assets used and risks assumed (FAR analysis) by the enterprise through the permanent establishment and through the other parts of the enterprise.

The Committee has observed that business profits are contributed by both demand and supply of the goods. Article 7 of the OECD Model Tax Convention and approach recommended by OECD (based on FAR) is purely supply side approach towards profit attribution and disregards the role of demand in contributing to profits attributable to PE. Further, the Indian tax treaties have not included the concept of Income attribution based on FAR as advocated by OECD model convention, thereby permitting attribution of profits in a manner different from the authorized OECD approach i.e. by resorting to the direct accounting method and where that may not be possible, by apportionment of profits.

Accordingly, the Committee has suggested PE profit attribution based on a combination of (i) profits derived from Indian operations and (ii) three factor method based on equal weight accorded to sales (representing demand), manpower and assets (representing supply including marketing activities). In other words, profits of the multinational enterprise will first be apportioned for India sales (amount arrived at by multiplying the revenue derived from India x Global operational profit margin). As a second step, such profits will be attributed proportionately to (a) sales within and outside India; (b) employees and wages within and outside India; and (c) assets deployed within and outside India for Indian operations, each with 33% weightage. Further to address a situation whether the multinational enterprise suffers losses or has profit margin less than 2%, a margin of 2% of revenue derived from India sale is proposed to be regarded as deemed profit for India operation, thereby recommending minimum base level taxation. With regard to digital economy, where nexus to taxation is attributed to the concept of significant economic presence, considering the role of users, a fourth factor (i.e. user intensity) needs to be further built into the income attribution formulae.

The OECD approach for income attribution based on FAR analysis, which the Committee regards as factoring only supply side attributes (and not demand) finds favour with the Committee where no sales takes place in India. For instance, where a multinational enterprise constitutes a PE in India and compensates the PE at arm’s length basis FAR analysis and further such enterprise does not have any sales in India, no further income will be attributable to India (in absence of any play of demand side factor). However, where sales are made in India, the reading of the Committee report suggests formulae based attribution would become the rule and additional income attributable would become taxable in India (post allowance of income apportioned to supply factors and offered to tax in India).

Given the development, there will be a significant transformation to the concept and impact on income attribution to permanent establishments in India, should the proposed recommendation be formulated into mandatory rules. The demand side factors which the Committee consider as an important consideration would seemingly lead to attribution of 33 percent of the profits derived from sale in India even if no further attribution is required to be made in absence of other factors. It will be interesting to see how the courts view the principles around income attribution in light of the divergence in OECD approach and Indian tax administration position.

From Yatin’s Desk: Non tax filing prosecution risk

The Indian tax administration is taking strict action for non compliance under the India tax laws. The authorities have been launching penalty & prosecution proceedings for failure to file a tax return within the due date. While the tax provisions provide for an extended period for filing a belated return (till the end of the assessment year), the tax authorities have been identifying non filers and late filers and initiating penalty & prosecution proceedings, even if filed within the prescribed belated period.

Where prosecution proceedings are launched, the taxpayers may unfortunately have to go through the rigour of long drawn criminal proceedings before the Criminal Court to establish that the failure was not willful and absence of culpable mental state. Tax payers impacted by such action typically attempt as a first recourse quashing of prosecution proceedings through petition before the High Court. This unfortunately is unlikely to have much success considering the courts in such matters do not dwell into fact finding to establish bonafide of the taxpayer, (a domain of the criminal court) established through evaluation of facts and examination of witnesses.

Where penalty proceedings are simultaneously launched, which would ordinarily be the case, a favourable outcome before the Appellate Tribunal, on merits, would have a direct bearing on the prosecution proceedings before the trial court. The Appellate Tribunal being a final fact finding authority, if on appreciation of facts does decided that the tax payer had bonafide reasons for not being able to comply with the filing obligation, such determination would be a significant finding for discharge from criminal proceedings or alternatively quashing of prosecution proceedings through application to the High Court. A tax payer will be better off establishing the facts and circumstance before the Tax Tribunal than the Criminal Court. Proceedings before Criminal Court can rather be intimidating for an ordinary tax payer who may just be overwhelmed by the sheer thought of seeking a bail, examination and cross-examination of witness, the longevity of proceedings, etc.

Given the serious implications of prosecution proceedings, it will be extremely important for the impacted tax payers to have a well thought through strategy to address the challenges of such proceedings.

Run Up to the Budget 2018-19

Economic Survey of India 2017-18:

Policy Reforms in Zeitgeist of Stigmatized Capitalism

Economic Surveys have sometimes been seen as portends of the Budget that follows. It is often used to engage in a sort of crystal ball gazing and guess work to predict the Budget proposals. However, a more useful manner of looking at these is that the Economic Surveys provide a much needed context to the Budget.

Economic Survey 2018-191 in much the same manner is not only a report card of the Government for the year past, but also provides a context in which the Budget proposals would arrive. In the following paragraphs, we have attempted to flesh out those areas that we perceive may see an amount of thrust in the Budget proposals. Not just that, we believe that the following paragraphs will supply you, the reader, with a certain amount of clarity vis-a-vis the "Why" of the Budget proposal, providing, as it were, the context within which the Finance Minister would stand to deliver his speech. Between these lines, there could be technical monsters that present themselves - for instance, certain tax proposals may be a necessary concomitant of what the Government may seek to achieve via the Budget in the context of the economic scorecard of the country. These have, in some places, been sought to be presented as separate highlights within this page.

Our reading of the Survey indicates that while at an overall level, there are no immediate causes for alarm, nonetheless, the Government has a tight rope walk ahead of it, in balancing the need for economic growth with the deficit levels. This nuance appears in paragraph 1.29, and therefore, in the very first chapter, where the Economic Survey notes:

"It is that zeitgeist (or Maahaul) of stigmatized capitalism—an accumulated legacy inherited by the government—that made policy reforms so difficult and makes the recent progress in addressing the Twin Balance Sheet challenge noteworthy."

In any event, based on High frequency indicators2 in its outlook for 2017-18, the Economic Survey suggests that a robust recovery is taking hold. However, the level of indicators remain below potential.

The CSO3 has forecast the real GDP4 at 6.5 percent. However, the Economic Survey pegs this the expectation of GDP growth in 2017-18 at 6.75 percent. The Current Account Deficit remains well below the 3 percent of GDP threshold beyond which vulnerability emerges, and foreign exchange reserves are at US$432 billion (spot and forward) at end December 2017 (well above prudent norms, as the Survey notes).

On GST

GST revenue collections are robust. The Survey predicts the GST revenue growth as compared to the Annual revenues of indirect taxes in 2016-17 at 12 percent.

GST Revenue Collection (in lakh crores)

Particulars of collection
agency and tax
2016-17
(Annual)
Nature of Tax
(in GST
regime)
2017-18
(Estimated Annual
Steady State
revenues)
States4.4SGST2.5
Center5.3CGST2.5
Excise1.4IGST4.9
Service2.5Cesses0.9
CVD / SAD1.4Not applicable
Total10.9
Estimated Growth of GST 12%

With the rate of growth in GST being 12 percent (on an estimate basis), and the nominal GDP growth of 10.5 percent projected in the Survey, the buoyancy of GST amounts to 1.14. This is a major change from the historic buoyancy of indirect tax that has been at around 0.9 percent.

GST as an information mining tool

"The GST has been widely heralded for many things, especially its potential to create one Indian market, expand the tax base, and foster cooperative federalism. Yet almost unnoticed is its one enormous benefit: it will create a vast repository of information, which will enlarge and surely alter our understanding of India’s economy."5 With this statement the Survey establishes GST as a game changer in the information that it acts as a tool to gather. Some exciting new findings arising out of GST data mining are highlighted here:

  • the assumption that the B2C firms (i.e. the smaller firms) would opt for composition has been proved wrong as such firms nonetheless purchase from large enterprises
  • distribution of GST base among the states appears closely related to their Gross State Domestic Product allaying fears that the shift to GST would undermine major producing states' tax collections
  • there is a strong correlation between export performance and states' standard of living
  • Internal trade of India is a whopping 60 percent of the GDP, which beats the estimates by 10 percent
  • India's formal non-farm payroll is substantially greater than believed - social security measures hint at 31 percent of the non-agricultural work force as formal sector payroll, but GST data suggests formal sector payroll of 53 percent

Other Determinants of Growth

Personal income tax collections have been pegged at 2.3 percent for the FY 2017-18 at the back of measures such as demonetization and GST.  The other two significant aspects that have been highlighted by the Survey are:

  • Exports (hailed, as it were, as the biggest source of upside potential) and
  • Implementation of the Insolvency and Bankruptcy process

Based on the above, inter alia, the Survey pegs the growth rate between 7 and 7.5 percent.6

Timely Justice - A Measure of Ease of Doing Business

It has been widely acknowledged, and stated extremely succinctly by Amrit Amirapu that "Justice Delayed is Development Denied".7  Especially taken note of are tax cases - with the average pendency of 6 years per case, the situation has been rather politely deemed to be acute! Per illustrative data quoted by the Survey, the value of government projects in six infrastructure ministries that are currently stayed by court injunctions, as well as the average duration of their stays has been tabulated as given below:

Stayed Projects - Stock (6 ministries as on October 31, 2017)

MinistryStayed ProjectsTotal Value
(Rs. Crores)
Duration of Stay
(Years)
Shipping22,6205.9
Power1123,9133
Road3011,2163
Petroleum23420.9
Mines121063
Railways1213,8823
Total 5252,0814.3

The total legal expenditure of the Corporate India between 2015-16 was close to 20 thousand crores. Other damning statistics relate to tax cases where the Survey notes that the success rate of the Department at all three levels of appeal - Appellate Tribunals, High Courts, and Supreme Court - and for both direct and indirect tax litigation is under 30 percent. "The Department unambiguously loses 65 percent of its cases. Over a period of time, the success rate of the Department has only been declining, while that of the assessee has been increasing".

From a Policy perspective, the Survey suggests the following measures:

  • Expanding judicial capacity in the lower courts and reducing existing burden on the higher courts via additional capacity to deal with economic and commercial cases at the lower levels, reducing the original side jurisdiction from the High Courts and lesser exercise of discretionary jurisdiction by the higher courts
  • Tax department should limit its appeal - recognizing the bureaucratic risk aversion, the survey suggests the constitution of an independent panel to decide on further appeals
  • Increasing state expenditure on judiciary
  • Creation of more subject matter and stage specific benches
  • Reduction of reliance on injunctions and stays and stricter timelines for decision on these
  • Better court case management and court automation on the lines of Crown Court Management Services of the UK

Deep Dive - Selected Highlights of the Survey

Fiscal Developments during the year

The Survey notes that there are 3 distinct patterns on revenue front till November 2017.

  • the gross tax collections are reasonably on track
  • non tax revenues have visibly underperformed
  • non-debt capital receipts, mainly proceedings from disinvestments are doing well

%age Growth in Items of Receipt (April to November)

 2014-152015-162016-172017-18
Gross tax revenue6.520.821.516.5
Net tax revenue4.312.533.612.6
Non tax revenue20.534.91.0-29.7
Total revenue receipts7.817.824.81.1
Non-debt capital receipts-17.3180.357.189.9
Non-debt receipts7.32025.84.6

In contrast to revenue, the expenditure had been robust - which in the present context of the data, appeared to be a euphemism for "tearaway". In any event, the rationale provided by the Survey appears to be sound inasmuch as that:

  • due to advancing of the budget cycle the spending agencies planned in advance and could implement their expenditure plans effectively, and before time, as it were and
  • front loading of certain expenditure as a pat of prudent expenditure management

In any event, this had led to a certain amount of pressure on the revenue and fiscal deficit on a year on year basis - note the inordinately high percentages for 2017-18 in the table below.

Deficit Indicators (%age of BE)

 2015-162016-172017-18
Revenue Deficit87.598.6152.2
Fiscal Deficit8785.8112

Renegotiation of PPAs8 by certain states

One of the key objectives of the Electricity Act, 2003 is promotion of competition in the electricity sector. Section 63 of the Act specifies that (notwithstanding anything contained in section 62), the Appropriate Commission shall adopt the tariff if such tariff has been determined through transparent process of bidding in accordance with the guidelines issued by the Central Government. A tariff order shall, unless amended or revoked, continue to be in force for such period as may be specified in the tariff order. The revised tariff policy was published in January, 2016.

With the recent rounds of auctions, very low tariffs came to be discovered. Auction for wind based power held by SECI 9 held in February 2017 realised a tariff of INR 3.46/unit. The lowest feed in tariff for wind on the other hand is at INR 4.16/unit. Second wind auction led to a tariff of INR 2.64/unit - which while welcome in some ways, led to renegotiations of PPAs already signed from certain discoms. Per CRISIL, such renegotiations have the potential of risk to investment worth INR 48000 crores. The Survey takes note of this risk and suggests that "affordable financing holds the key for financing sustainable energy projects". The Survey notes that risk mitigating instruments such as payment guarantee fund or a foreign exchange fund available to developers could be a way forward. Renewable energy has already been placed under the priority sector lending and the bank loan for solar roof-top systems is to be treated as a part of home loan/home improvement loan with subsequent tax benefits. Currently, the levelized tariff is approaching grid parity. The Survey advocates a case for revisiting the subsidies and incentives being given to the renewable energy sector.

Logistics - Challenges and Suggested Plan

With GST, the next big step has to be logistics, given the avowed objective of a single market economy. However, there is much to be desired in this sector. Amongst the challenges are multiple policy making bodies, unfavourable modal mix, and general apathy towards logistics, that plagues the industry. If the benefits of GST are to be harnessed, logistics would have to play a key part therein. The Survey suggests certain key action plans

  • Formulation of National Integrated Logistics Policy to bring in greater transparency and enhance efficiency in logistics operations
  • Develop integrated IT Platform as a single window for all logistics related matters and act as a Logistics marketplace
  • Usher in ease of documentation, faster clearance, digitization.
  • Bring down logistics cost to less than 10% of GDP by 2022
  • Faster clearances for setting up of logistics infrastructure like Multi-modal logistic parks (MMLPs), Container Freight Station (CFS), Air Freight Station (AFS) & Inland Container Depot (ICD).
  • Introduce professional standards and certification for service providers
  • Promote introduction of high-end technologies like high-tech scanning equipment, RFID, GPS, EDI, online Track & Trace systems in the entire logistics network.
  • Improve Logistics skilling in the country and increase jobs in Logistics sector to 40 million by 2022

Hybrid Annuity Model in Infrastructure Development

While addressing Industry and Infrastructure sector, the Survey takes a special note of the Hybrid Annuity Model. This model, mooted for road construction, is a combination of EPC (Engineering, Procurement and Construction) model and BOT - Annuity (Build, Operate, Transfer) model. Under the EPC model, the private players construct the road and have no role in the road’s ownership, toll collection or maintenance. National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) pays private players for the construction of the road. The Government with full ownership of the road, takes care of toll collection and maintenance of the road.

Under the BOT model

  • private players have an active role in road construction, operation and maintenance of the road for a specified number of years as per agreement. After the completion of the years of operation, the private players transfer the asset back to the Government.
  • the private players arrange all the finances for the project, while collecting toll revenue (BOT toll model) or annuity fee (BOT annuity model) from the Government, as agreed.

In the BOT annuity model, the toll revenue risk is taken by the Government. The Government pays private player a pre-fixed annuity for construction and maintenance of roads.

Hybrid Annuity Model combines EPC (40 per cent) and BOT-Annuity (60 per cent) Models. On behalf of the Government, NHAI releases 40 per cent of the total project cost, in five tranches linked to milestones. The balance 60 per cent is arranged by the developer. The developer usually invests not more than 20-25 per cent of the project cost, while the remaining is raised as debt.

In BOT toll model, the private players did not show their willingness to invest, since they had to fully arrange for the entire finances, either through equity contribution or debt. NPA-riddled banks were reluctant to lend to these projects. Since there was no compensation structure such as annuity, the developers had to take entire risk in low traffic projects. The essence of Hybrid Annuity Model arose due to requirement of better financial mechanism where the risk would be spread between developers and the Government.

Issue of vacant housing

The Survey takes a special note of the issue of vacant housing. Of the total residential stock. the Survey finds that 12.38 percent are vacant. The Survey states that "India’s housing requirements are complex but till now policies have been mostly focused on building more homes and on home ownership. The above data suggests that we need to take a more holistic approach that takes into account rentals and vacancy rates. In turn, this needs policy-makers to pay more attention to contract enforcement, property rights and spatial distribution of housing supply vs. demand." However, with a strong stress on this issue, the possibility of tax proposals impacting vacant housing could be expected.

In Conclusion

Amongst the various issues discussed in the Economic Survey, the aspects analysed by us are essentially areas of concern that may potentially impact both policy making and law in relation to taxation as well as other sectors.  One of the factors stressed upon in the Economic Survey is effective enforcement of contracts, through a more effective judicial process; this will significantly contribute to the ‘ease of doing business’. 

From this analysis of the Economic survey, the key policy measures in the near to medium term could be in the road, logistics, judicial and energy sectors. 

We believe it relevant to mention that this is the first in the many exercises to be undertaken by us with respect to the analysis of the upcoming Budget. We would be happy to have you, our readers, researching and reflecting on our analysis to engage with us about your thoughts and perceptions to encourage fluid dialogue.

With special thanks to Siddharth Sharma and Shivangi Nanda. 

Team Aureus

#IndiaBudget2018Aureus

Footnotes