Prior to the introduction of VAT in the Centre and in the States, there was a burden of multiple taxation in the pre-existing Central excise duty and the State sales tax systems. Before any commodity was produced, inputs were first taxed, and then after the commodity got produced with input tax load, output was taxed again. This was causing a burden of multiple taxation (i.e. “tax on tax”) with a cascading effect. Moreover, in the sales tax structure, when there was also a system of multi-point sales taxation at subsequent levels of distributive trade, then along with input tax load, burden of sales tax paid on purchase at each level was also added, thus aggravating the cascading effect further.
When VAT is introduced in place of Central excise duty, a set-off is given, i.e., a deduction is made from the overall tax burden for input tax. In the case of VAT in place of sales tax system, a set-off is given from tax burden not only for input tax paid but also for tax paid on previous purchases. With VAT, the problem of “tax on tax” and related burden of cascading effect is thus removed. Furthermore, since the benefit of set-off can be obtained only if tax is duly paid on inputs (in the case of Central VAT), and on both inputs and on previous purchases (in the case of State VAT), there is a built-in check in the VAT structure on tax compliance in the Centre as well as in the States, with expected results in terms of improvement in transparency and reduction in tax evasion. For these beneficial effects, VAT has now been introduced in more than 150 countries, including several federal countries. In Asia, it has now been introduced in almost all the countries.
In India, VAT was introduced at the Central level for a selected number of commodities in terms of MODVAT with effect from March 1, 1986, and in a step-by-step manner for all commodities in terms of CENVAT in 2002-03. Subsequently, after the Constitutional Amendment empowering the Centre to levy tax on services, the service tax was also added to CENVAT in 2004-05. Although the growth of tax revenue from the Central excise has not always been specially high, the revenue growth of combined CENVAT and service taxes has been significant.
Introduction of VAT in the States has been a more challenging exercise in a federal country like India, where each State, in terms of Constitutional provision, is sovereign in levying and collecting State taxes. Before introduction of VAT, in the sales tax regime, apart from the problem of multiple taxation and burden of adverse cascading effect of taxes as already mentioned, there was also no harmony in the rates of sales tax on different commodities among the States. Not only were the rates of sales tax numerous (often more than ten in several States), and different from one another for the same commodity in different States, but there was also an unhealthy competition among the States in terms of sales tax rates – socalled “rate war” – often resulting in, revenue-wise, a counter-productive situation.
It is in this background that attempts were made by the States to introduce a harmonious VAT in the States, keeping at the same time in mind the issue of sovereignty of the States regarding the State tax matters. The first preliminary discussion on State-level VAT took place in a meeting of Chief Ministers convened by Dr. Manmohan Singh, the then Union Finance Minister in 1995. In this meeting, the basic issues on VAT were discussed in general terms and this was followed up by periodic interactions of State Finance Ministers. Thereafter, in a significant meeting of all the Chief Ministers, convened on November 16, 1999 by Shri Yashwant Sinha, the then Union Finance Minister, two important decisions, among others, were taken. First, before the introduction of State-level VAT, the unhealthy sales tax “rate war” among the States would have to end, and sales tax rates would need to be harmonised by implementing uniform floor rates of sales tax for different categories of commodities with effect from January 1, 2000. Secondly, on the basis of achievement of the first objective, steps would be taken by the States for introduction of State-level VAT after adequate preparation. For implementing these decisions, a Standing Committee of State Finance Ministers was formed which was then made an Empowered Committee of State Finance Ministers.
Thereafter, the Empowered Committee has met regularly. All the decisions were taken on the basis of consensus. On the strength of these repeated discussions and collective efforts, involving the Ministers and the concerned officials, it was possible within a period of about a year and a half to achieve nearly 98 per cent success in the first objective, namely, harmonisation of sales tax structure through implementation of uniform floor rates of sales tax.
After reaching this stage, steps were initiated for systematic preparation for introduction of State-level VAT. In order again to avoid any unhealthy competition among the States which may lead to distortions in manufacturing and trade, attempts have been made from the very beginning to harmonise the VAT design in the States, keeping also in view the distinctive features of each State and the need for federal flexibility. This has been done by the States collectively agreeing, through discussions in the Empowered Committee, to certain common points of convergence regarding VAT, and allowing at the same time certain flexibility to accommodate the local characteristics of the States.
Along with these measures, steps were taken for necessary training, computerization and interaction with trade and industry. While these preparatory steps were taken, the Empowered Committee got a significant support from Shri P.Chidambaram, the then Union Finance Minister, when he responded positively in providing Central financial support to the States in the event of loss of revenue in transitional years of implementation of VAT.
As a consequence of all these steps, the States started implementing VAT beginning April 1, 2005. After overcoming the initial difficulties, all the States and Union Territories have now implemented VAT. The Empowered Committee has been monitoring closely the process of implementation of State-level VAT, and deviations from the agreed VAT rates have been contained substantially. Responses of industry and also of trade have been indeed encouraging. The rate of growth of tax revenue has nearly doubled from the average annual rate of growth in the pre-VAT five year period after the introduction of VAT.