Tax Reforms in India Since 1991

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There have been major changes in tax systems of countries with a wide variety of economic systems and levels of development during the last two decades. The motivation for these reforms has varied from one country to another and the thrust of reforms has differed from time to time depending on the development strategy and philosophy of the times. In many developing countries, the immediate reason for tax reforms has been the need to enhance revenues to meet impending fiscal crises. One of the most important reasons for recent tax reforms in many developing and transitional economies has been to evolve a tax system to meet the requirements of international competition.

Indian Criteria

There have been a number of attempts at improving the tax system since independence. The principal objective of these attempts has been to enhance revenue productivity to finance large development plans. Although the various tax reform committees considered economic efficiency as one of the objectives, the recommendations do not bear much testimony to this aspect. The recommendations were in keeping with the philosophy of the times. Further, even when the committees did recommend certain measures on efficiency considerations, this was not acted upon if it involved loss of revenues.

As in other countries, the systemic reforms in the tax system in India in the 1990s were the product of crisis but the reforms were calibrated on the basis of detailed analysis. Tax reform since 1991 was initiated as a part of the structural reform process, following the economic crisis of 1991. In keeping with the best practice approaches, the Tax Reform Committee ( TRC) adopted an approach of combining economic principles with conventional wisdom in recommending comprehensive tax system reforms. There are three parts to it. In the first part, the Committee set out the guiding principles of tax reform and applied them to important taxes namely, taxes on income and wealth, tariffs and taxes on domestic consumption. The first part of the final report was concerned mainly with the much-neglected aspect of reforms in administration and enforcement of both direct and indirect taxes. The second part dealt with restructuring the tariff structure. In keeping with the structural adjustment of the economy, the basic principles taken in the recommendations were to broaden the base, lower marginal tax rates, reduce rate differentiation, and undertake measures to make the administration and enforcement of the tax system more effective. The reforms were to be calibrated to bring about revenue neutrality in the short term and to enhance revenue productivity of the tax system in the medium and long term. The overall thrust of the TRC was to (i) decrease the share of trade taxes in total tax revenue; (ii) increase the share of domestic consumption taxes by transforming the domestic excises into VAT and (iii) increase the relative contribution of direct taxes.

The important proposals put forward by the TRC included reduction in the rates of all major taxes, viz. customs, individual and corporate income taxes and excises to reasonable levels, maintain progressivity but not such as to induce evasion. The TRC recommended a number of measures to broaden the base of all taxes by minimizing exemptions and concessions, drastic simplification of laws and procedures, building a proper information system and computerization of tax returns, and a thorough revamping and modernization of the administrative and enforcement machinery. It also recommended that the taxes on domestic production should be fully converted into a value added tax, and this should be extended to the wholesale level in agreement with the states, with additional revenues beyond the post-manufacturing stage passed on to the state governments.

In the case of customs, the TRC recommendations were the weakest. The TRC recommended tariff rates of 5, 10, 15, 20, 25, 30 and 50 to be...
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