Selling GST: How Modi govt spread the message and eased concerns

The government has sought Parliament's nod for publicity and GST awareness

Selling GST: How the govt spread the message and eased concerns
Navin Kumar, Hasmukh Adhia, Vanaja N Sarna

The government still relies on the appeal of actor Amitabh Bachchan for marketing and selling the goods and services tax (GST) to the masses.

However, when it comes to the nitty-gritty of clarifying the tax structure or evolving a consensus on emerging issues, Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, Revenue Secretary Hasmukh Adhia, Central Board of Excise and Customs (CBEC) Chairperson Vanaja N Sarna, and GST Network Chairperson Navin Kumar take centre stage.

Complementing these efforts, Jaitley's colleagues in the Council of Ministers — such as Piyush Goyal, Suresh Prabhu, Smriti Irani, Nitin Gadkari, Jayant Sinha, Nirmala Sitharaman — went all out to allay apprehensions about the new tax regime among stakeholders.

The biggest issues that created apprehension were the difficulties faced by the small and medium enterprises, traders, and dealers when it comes to registering on the GSTN, generating invoices, and getting input tax credit.

Apart from industry-specific grievances, there is lack of clarity among businesses on how the anti-profiteering provisions will play out.

Sample the reactiveness of the government’s Team GST:

When a message was going out that cigarettes would become less costly or their makers would corner higher margins under the GST regime than in the earlier taxation system, Jaitley convened an out-of-turn meeting of the GST Council to address the issue. Short of time, the meeting was held through video-conferencing. Even then, it reached a consensus to raise fixed cess on cigarettes.

Similarly, when reports came in about the “cumbersome” process of uploading returns, which made SMEs wary of the new system, Adhia went on national television to bust seven myths surrounding the issue. 

For this purpose, he took to the Twitter handle — GST@GoI — specifically created to seek feedback from the stakeholders and clarify their queries.

He busted several myths, including the need for a computer and internet facility to generate invoices, or need to file three returns a month by everyone registered under the GST, among others. He went on to clarify that invoices could be generated manually as well and there is only one return to be filed that has three parts, of which the first part is to be filed by the registered person and two other parts are auto populated by the IT system.

Navin Kumar explained the steps those registering on the portal should take to avoid any problem. He allayed fears of crash of the GST portal due to information overload. "The GST portal is not down. It is up and running. Let me assure you that the portal has never crashed since it was opened on June 25,” he reiterated in an interview.

However, the portal did need to stop the registration process briefly for software deployment and maintenance. "This is done only at night with due notice at the website," he clarified. 

Teaming up with tax officials and IT executives, Adhia held GST Master Ki Class for three days each, in Hindi and English, to answer queries from all over India. Questions ranged from those on the composition scheme, inter-state supplies, the threshold for exemption for inter-state movements of goods, the need for filing separate returns in each state, the need of displaying on bills that one is on the composition scheme, tax on sale of used jewellery by households, eating out becoming expensive under the GST regime, and so on. He patiently clarified many of the issues.

When textile traders in Surat went on strike against the GST structure, the revenue department, including the CBEC, came up with a clarification as to why the rate of 5 per cent imposed on apparel could be brought to zero. It would hamper input credit to the segment, it clarified. 

Sarna stood firm, saying the rates would not be revised unless there was an anomaly or the rates were unjustified. But, she also tried to accommodate some of the textile sector's demands. "It is an issue that has snowballed but it is not something which cannot be settled," she said, reaching out to the sector through a platform provided by the Confederation of Indian Industry.  It is expected that some of the current concerns of industry could be taken up at the GST Council meeting on August 5.

Another pet peeve of industry has been about the proposed anti-profiteering body. The CBEC chairperson assured India Inc. that the yet-to-be-set-up body will take up only those cases which have a mass impact and where undue profit of over Rs 1 crore has been earned.