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Devesh Kapur and Arvind Subramanian: A property tax proposal

Why taxing property for accountable local government is essential

Devesh Kapur & Arvind Subramanian 

Devesh Kapur and Arvind Subramanian

In our last piece, we had argued that is the economic glue that binds citizens to the state in a necessary two-way relationship ("Taxation's fatal neglect?", January 20). A citizen's stake in exercising diminishes if he does not pay in a visible and direct way - typically via direct taxes or user fees - for the services the state provides. We estimated that a very small percentage of Indians (about 10 per cent) are in this taxpayer relationship with the state. Unless India brings more people into the net through some form of direct taxation, the promise of Indian democracy will remain unfulfilled. How should this be accomplished?

Four key factors bear upon this question. India is decentralising. It is rapidly urbanising. Wealth is increasingly vested and locked up in land and property. And politicians will be extremely reluctant to impose direct taxes, especially if they are close to those being taxed. Consider each in turn.

Given India's size, the chain of delegation from principals (citizens/voters) to agents (their elected representatives) is simply too long for the current system of to serve as an mechanism. In addition, top-down transfers to local governments, whether from centrally sponsored schemes or state governments, weaken citizens' engagement and they become less demanding and politicians have fewer incentives to respond to public interests. Hence, an increasing share of public services and local public goods should be provided locally and financed locally, preferably via direct taxes.

The impulse that drove the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments was appropriately visionary, but the fiscal means to realise that vision have not been provided to local bodies. The large vertical imbalance inherent in the massive mismatch between functions and finances of local governments, especially (ULBs), violates the principle of "subsidiarity" that is the cornerstone of fiscal federalism. Often, the culprits are state governments and leaders who have deliberately throttled the fiscal powers of ULBs fearing a loss of political control if ULBs gain financial autonomy. States such as Haryana, Punjab and Rajasthan have even abolished the residential property

Second, going forward, will increasingly be focused on cities. If 50 to 60 per cent of India's population will be urban, cities will and should become the vehicle or the governance mechanism for delivering a variety of public services such as primary education and health, water and sanitation, local transportation, and law and order. The taxpayer relationship will then become about urban taxes and urban user fees. Moreover, creating local capacity will serve to strengthen state capacity to provide public goods.

Third, land in general - and urban land and property in particular - is among the biggest sources of wealth in the country, but it has been untapped. The limited data available suggest that total municipal revenues in India account for about 0.75 per cent of gross domestic product, about one-seventh of Brazil's. ULBs account for about two per cent of the combined and expenditure of all levels of the government, less than a tenth of that in advanced countries.

Finally, in India, the closer a tier of the government is to the taxed and the more direct the representation of the taxed, the less willing it is to Municipal corporations find it more difficult to increase these taxes, perhaps because property owners and builders pay for the campaigns of corporators. Similarly, village panchayats are unlikely to impose taxes on the very people who might control or constitute them.

Thus, the 14th should take the lead and initiate the process of It should do so not by fiat but through the provision of incentives to states and local governments.

These incentives would take the form of the Centre providing additional resources by way of matching grants (via transfers) for local governments and states that make progress in increasing the number of taxpayers who are brought into the direct taxpayer net and increasing revenues from such direct taxes. For example, the could say that for every Y per cent increase in these two variables, central matching grants would increase by X per cent. The resources could come by increasing the share of pooled that is distributed to the states (so-called vertical transfers).

The exact incentive mechanism could be designed in several ways. If the view is that state governments are the impediment in preventing financial empowerment of local bodies, the could stipulate that the matching grant from the Centre would be linked to improved performance by the local bodies and would be given to these bodies and not to state governments.

An alternative, and less intrusive (on state government authority), approach would be to provide matching grants to the states conditional on improving property performance and leave it to state governments via the state finance commissions to determine the subsequent allocations to local bodies.

The light or heavy touch should also apply to the specifics of For example, if there is a universal view that urban property taxes are the way to go, the can explicitly link the matching grants to performance on additional property taxpayers and property taxes. The arguments for privileging a property are several. First and foremost, it is a direct that will be felt by those on whom it is imposed, thereby furthering the objective. It would significantly boost revenues. It is a progressive wealth tax, even when it is uniform and low. It is imposed on a non-mobile good, which can with today's technologies be relatively easily identified and mapped. It is also a imposed on a good (property) whose values can only increase, and therefore has in-built buoyancy. And just as a financial transaction would put sand in the wheels of finance, it would do the same for property speculation.

The other variable the has at its disposal is the magnitude of matching grants. If fiscal is considered important - as we would urge - then the magnitudes set aside for achieving this objective should be substantial. However, if additional resources are unavailable, an alternative would be to change the formula for distribution of resources between states (so-called horizontal transfers) to include the performance criteria proposed above, according it a high weight in the distribution formula. This has the downside of being a zero-sum exercise between states that would elicit political resistance from the states that are likely to remain property laggards.

The challenges in building effective systems of property will be considerable and local bodies will need assistance from the Centre and other institutions to do so. One implication is that this proposal should be implemented in a phased manner. For example, we could begin with municipal corporations, then municipalities and subsequently nagar panchayats and finally village panchayats. Successive Finance Commissions should calibrate the incentive mechanism to take account of past experience. But the end goal must be that nearly all Indians are part of the direct, especially property, net. And yes, this should include rural Indians as well.

With India poised to add half a billion people to its urban population over the next four decades, getting urbanisation right is critical. In turn, an efficient property system is essential for urban generation and service delivery. It may well be essential to sustain Indian democracy itself.

Devesh Kapur is director, Centre for the Advanced Study of India at the University of Pennsylvania, and Arvind Subramanian is senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics and Centre for Global Development

First Published: Fri, February 07 2014. 22:14 IST