The appointment of IAS officer Badri Narain Sharma as the Chairman of the newly constituted National Anti-Profiteering Authority (NAA) in the Goods and Services Tax (GST) regime is interesting. Sharma, an additional secretary in the department of revenue, is a Rajasthan cadre officer of the 1985 batch. His appointment is interesting because, till now, Sharma has hardly played a role in the evolution of India’s most significant tax reform.
Other than the GST Council, which includes the finance ministers of all states along with the Union finance minister and the minister of state for finance with charge of revenue, the NAA promises to be the most watched entity in the GST space. It wields the responsibility to ensure that benefits of lower indirect tax rates are passed on to consumers. Since the GST is predicated on the premise that it will cut taxes at each stage of the production chain, Indian citizens would want to see the cumulative effect on their purchase bills.
This can only happen if companies diligently pass on the tax cuts via softer retail prices. In normal business practice, price cuts are the product of competition among producers of goods and services. But none of India’s major political parties believe this would happen without the fear of a stick. That stick is the NAA — though it is supposed to be in existence for only two years from the date it is constituted.
That’s the reason why business people were eager to know who will chair the NAA. Its mandate is clear: to ensure benefits of input credit and the reduction in GST rates on specified goods or services are passed on to the consumers by way of a commensurate reduction in prices. The NAA has to demonstrate that prices have been lowered.
The penalties are stiff. If found guilty, the concerned business would have to reduce its prices. For any sales made at higher prices, the offending company will have to “return the undue benefit availed along with interest at the rate of 18 per cent to the consumers of the goods or services. If the undue benefit cannot be passed on to consumers, it can be ordered to be deposited in the Consumer Welfare Fund”. Sharma has, therefore, walked into one of the most significant organisations created by the Union government in a long time, with powers over a huge segment of India Inc. The appointments committee of the cabinet order says Sharma will have the rank and pay of a secretary in the government.
The order also says the 58-year-old was closely associated with the formulation of GST and its implementation. But this is a matter of debate. He is, of course, a member of the board of directors of the GSTN—the infotech backbone of the nationwide order matching system which is GST. Yet, the GST Council had appointed Arun Goyal, from the cabinet secretariat, to the sensitive post of advising the Council.
Before joining the finance ministry Sharma did a stint in the power ministry and at one time served in the commercial taxes department of the Rajasthan government. So, other than a general exposure in the economic departments of the state governments and at the Centre his “close association” with the tax has been mild.
But this has also been the norm within the Indian government for appointments to any ministry. Domain expertise has rarely been given importance. Sharma, however, has an advantage — he heads a three-tier national body with plenty of buffer. Complaints will be investigated at the state level by a screening committee. Those complaints that are found to be valid would be referred to a standing committee at the Centre that would, in turn, ask the director general of Safeguards of the Central Board of Excise and Customs to carry out a detailed investigation. And then he can take comfort in the knowledge that Finance Secretary Hasmukh Adhia is there for addressing any challenging question.