The Centre must proceed on its idea of restricting criminal prosecution for GST offences to sums involving ₹20 crore or more. At present, Section 132 of the Central Goods and Services Act is sweeping in its scope and lays out a laundry list of offences which can invite imprisonment. A fine and a one-year jail term are the punishment for tax evasion or misuse of input tax credit involving ₹1 crore, and this goes up to a jail term of three years for an offence of ₹5 crore. The proposal to raise the threshold limit to ₹20 crore, as reported recently by this newspaper, would mean that the threat of arrest cannot be unleashed for tax offences involving smaller sums.
Indeed, it is only in rare cases that GST violations have led up to imprisonment; but what actually happens is that the threat of arrest leads to both parties, the tax officials and the business entity concerned, resorting to malpractices. In fact, the proposed threshold of ₹20 crore can be revised upward, or even perhaps done away with later — with the IPC being available anyway to proceed against wilful, large-scale fraud. But for now, raising the threshold can make a big difference to small and medium scale businesses in particular. State-level assessing staff, who deal with entities with a turnover of ₹1.5 crore or less, will not be able to dangle the Damocles sword of arrest over them. But this is not enough. The basic problem is that the scope of offence and the punishments defined under Sections 83 and 122-132 are sweeping and arbitrary. Even if offences now considered jail-worthy become ‘compoundable’ (settled on payment of a penalty) the punishments could yet be excessive — as these are not clearly defined with respect to the violation. For instance, under Section 132 (g), threat of imprisonment may be invoked merely if an entity “obstructs or prevents any officer in the discharge of his duties under this Act”. Such provisions create scope for exercise of overweening powers. On the ground, harassment takes various forms. Attachment of bank accounts (Section 83) is commonplace. If a business entity is to be questioned for irregularities (such as misuse of input tax credit, mismatch with income tax records, supply of goods without issuing invoices), due procedure is often not observed, such as issue of summons and recording of the interaction. In the event of contestable claims, the assessees concerned have no GST tribunal to go to, and end up paying more. The Commissioner of Appeals, within the tax system, is the only appellate authority on computation matters. If a tax claim is struck down, the assessing officer is not held to account.
GST must live up to its promise to improve ease of doing business — particularly for smaller units which lack the resources to deal with such headaches. At a macro level, GST is doing well. Malpractices have come down with invoice matching, e-invoicing and e-way bills. All the more reason, then, for the law and its guardians to ease up. Decriminalisation of GST offences marks a small beginning.