Suppose you are the government of a country badly in need of gold, but with only Rs 100 with which to get some.
You have two options on how to spend the money you have at your disposal for this purpose: Option one, try and tap the vast and readily available gold deposits in your country or option two, send your generals out to wage war against a neighbouring country rumoured to have large quantities of gold in circulation already. The first option would require the government to build durable capacity to extract the gold. It would require skill-building and long-term investments with the expectation of long-term gains. In short, there would be few short-term political gains.
The second would require sending some of your most able generals out to war. You know the war is going to be long and costly. You are unsure of how much gold you will get even after you win the war, but rumours suggest a possibility of acquiring vast quantities that would instantly make your country rich. Also, war-mongering has its benefits: It riles up people and unites them behind a common enemy. A chance of winning the war would ensure immediate and long-term political success. And you would not need to do the hard work of building state capacity at home. It sounds like a better bet, except that the probability of a win is unknown.
In the choice between spending Rs 100 on either building a more capable and effective tax administration or waging war against black money, we seem to have opted almost exclusively for option two. In doing so, we are sacrificing the historic need and opportunity to reform tax administration within India. Consider the facts: We rank 158th globally with regard to ease of paying taxes. Our tax-GDP ratio is hovering around 5.5 per cent, among the lowest in the world, and has not kept pace with recent growth rates. This points to a lack of investment in state capacity commensurate with a rapidly growing and changing economy. Less than 5 per cent of our population pays progressive income tax, while everyone pays the more inegalitarian indirect taxes every time they consume. This also points to low state capacity, especially since indirect taxes are relatively easier to collect. Consequently, much of our population does not feel the direct burden of taxation. In the long term, this dilutes the level of accountability demanded from the state. The power to demand greater oversight of government expenditure is critical in any democracy.
The world over, developed democracies keep making continuous but major reforms to tax administration. Countries such as the UK, US, Germany, Australia and Sweden have made important changes to their tax administration systems in the areas of taxpayer registration, processing customer information, information collection about taxable transactions, and investment in research. In India, the Tax Administration Reform Commission has already made a number of important recommendations to systematically reform the tax administrative machinery in line with global best practices. Among other suggestions, it recommends the establishment of an independent evaluation office to continuously review tax administration and suggest areas of reform. The TARC has put forward a review of global best practices in each area of tax administration which, if implemented, would substantially improve the collection and administration of taxes.
The implementation of these and other related reforms are urgently required, and they are a long-term investment for the benefit of the country. While it is important to catch tax evaders who have stashed money abroad, it is perhaps more important to collect taxes from somewhat more than 5 per cent of the resident population. A country with low state capacity such as ours cannot afford to focus equally on both goals. A prioritisation has to be made and, so far, in public discourse, we seem to have opted for an option that holds the illusory promise of windfall gain rather than building durable state institutions.
The writer is with NIPFP, Delhi, and ‘The Indian Express’