Wednesday, September 19, 2012

47% vs 97%

Mitt Romney is in a  soup over his 47% remark. In some remarks he made at a private meeting he said that 47% of Americans do not pay income tax (fact) and implied that these were scroungers (rubbish). But he was factually accurate in that 47% of Americans do indeed not pay income tax - although to be fair about that half of that lot do pay payroll taxes which is a form of income tax meant for funding social security and Medicare.

The purpose of this post is not to wade into the political controversy. But simply to point out the fact that if Romney were in India, he would say 97% of the population does not pay income tax. That's right - only 2.8% of Indians pay any income tax .

That's not to say 97% of the population does not pay any tax at all. Indirect taxes like VAT, Sales Tax, Octroi and a whole host of devilish taxes are levied on everything. Even a beggar buying beedis is paying all these taxes. But income tax, the largest revenue earning component of the budget is paid by only 2.8% of Indians.

Of course, this is a headline grabbing statistic that somewhat obscures the facts. India is a young country with a large number of children. They obviously are not meant to pay taxes (although I am somewhat loath to mention this as Ramamritham might pounce on the idea and design a tax for them). But clearly there is something very wrong in the Indian taxation system.

Surely so much of India is not dirt poor. The fact is that lots of people dodge taxes. Perhaps the true number of those who should be paying taxes is three times this number. Still, even if you say by rigorous enforcement of the law the number of tax payers would rise to say 9% - three times the current number, even then this is awfully small. How can a country which wants freebies and subsidies for everybody be financed largely by just 10% of its population.

Three things are blindingly obvious

- Economic growth for everybody should be the single most important priority of the government and society ; millions must be given the opportunity to earn enough income that they pay taxes. If ever there was a case for learning from the China model, this is it. Get rich first; then worry about income distribution.
- Tax evasion is clearly rampant. Here Ramamritham is indeed trying hard, but the scale of the problem beggars belief
- Tax exemption for agricultural income and long term capital gains has to go. If you earn sufficient income, whatever the source may be, you have to pay income tax.

You can only soak the 3% so much.