Is Parachute hair oil or edible oil? Is KitKat a chocolate or a biscuit? Is a Vicks tablet medicament or confectionery? For the taxpayer and the tax collector, this is much more than an exercise in semantics — hundreds of crores of rupees ride on the exact categorisation.
As the government moves closer to rolling out the goods and services tax (GST) on July 1, many such distinctions are being debated so that no ambiguity remains. Not just that, the government is revisiting old tax cases that were lost over product categorisation, according to people with knowledge of the matter, presumably with a view to making sure that revenue collections can be maximised.
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“In the past, several tax officers had challenged some of the product categorisations, including those in the retail segment, but lost out in court or at appellate level,” said one of the persons. “Now we have a chance to go ahead with specifying the products in a way based on the old cases so that similar situations don’t arise.”
It is understood that the product categorisation exercise, which was expected to have been completed last year, is taking much longer because of this process. The rates have already been decided — nil, 5 per cent, 12 per cent, 18 per cent and 28 per cent —but product categorisation is yet to be finalised.
“The GST rates for each and every item are not yet decided as the government is categorising products and what rates can be applied on each category of goods,” said MS Mani, senior director, Deloitte Haskins &Sells. “There is a chance that some of the old issues raised by the tax department regarding category of certain goods may come back to haunt some companies or products as GST is a new law and can redefine rates and what goods would fall under its preview.”
Some states have also raised issues on this front, Kerala being a case in point. During a recent closed-door meeting on product categorisation, finance minister TM Thomas Isaac brought up a point highly pertinent to people of that state.
Coconut oil shouldn’t be categorised as hair oil but as edible oil, he is reported to have said. The reason? Edible oil and hair oil are taxed differently as the latter is not an essential commodity. But coconut oil is an essential ingredient of Kerala cuisine, making its categorisation a matter of keen public interest for the state’s people.
Key past cases are being researched by the GST committee before it decides on the exact tax rates for each category, said the people cited above.
This could mean disputes that many companies thought had been resolved coming back to life.
Whether such moves will be challenged or not by the companies is yet to be seen. However, experts said this may be difficult since GST is a new tax regime altogether and old rulings may not have the force of precedent. Some of the old cases being examined involve Marico, P&G, NestleBSE 0.26 %, Paras Pharmaceuticals and Dabur, according to the people with knowledge of the matter.
For the record: KitKat is a biscuit and Vicks a medicament. In the KitKat case — Nestle (India) Ltd v/s Commissioner of Central Excise, Mumbai, 1999 — it was ruled that the product was a biscuit and not a chocolate, which is taxed at a higher rate.
Meanwhile, companies are lobbying the government to categorise biscuits as essential products under GST, which would mean their being taxed at a lower 5 per cent.
The Economic Times, 25 March 2017