West Bengal FM Amit Mitra: Authoritarian and majoritarian approach taking over GST Council

West Bengal finance minister Amit Mitra said that an ‘omnipotent and authoritarian approach’ was taking over the Goods and Service Tax Council which has till now worked on a consensus mechanism for which states had given up 70% of their taxing rights.

The majoritarian approach was leading to an impasse in the Council, he said, giving instances of Council members not being informed of the GST Council meeting not taking place for seven months, proposals on zero-rating of Covid related material given by Council members not being discussed in detail in the meeting held last week.

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“The only federalist institution where all states are present, this structure has become ubiquitous, omnipotent, authoritarian and majoritarian,” he said in a virtual press conference Monday.

“There has been a dramatic shift in the approach to the GST Council due to which today we are in such an impasse,” he added.

Mitra said that states including West Bengal, Punjab and Kerala had sought for 0.1% tax rate or zero-rating on key medical supplies for treatment of Covid, to help people and industry which would have been able to take input tax credit, but his views were not accepted.

He added that the lower tax rate was being sought for a limited period and the revenue impact on the government would have been miniscule.

The Council on Saturday decided to temporarily lower rates on Covid-related items including medicines, oxygen concentrators, testing kits and hand sanitisers to 5% until September 30. GST on ambulances has been lowered to 12% from 28%, that on electric furnaces used in crematoriums to 5% from 18% and temperature checking equipment to 5% from 12%.

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The state finance minister wrote to Union finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman after the meeting on Saturday expressing his dissent regarding the decisions taken, adding that he was not allowed to speak.

To this, minister of state Anurag Thakur had said that Mitra did not appear to have a stable network connection during the meeting, and the Sitharaman had asked twice if any one wished to speak before winding up the meeting, but no one spoke and other states can attest to the same.

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“During the GST Council discussions, it seemed as if the Finance Minister from West Bengal did not have a stable videoconferencing connection. Revenue secretary repeatedly informed him his line was breaking, that he was not properly audible and to turn off his video for better connectivity,” he had said.

Mitra said on Monday that he was not allowed to speak as the microphone was muted, and asked the Central authorities to investigate the incident.

Mitra added that bureaucrats were undermining the authority of the Council as decisions, amendments have been made and only provided for information to the Council. He noted that the fitment committee, headed by the revenue secretary, had given recommendations only a day before the Council meeting leaving no time for ministers to go through the volumes.

The state finance minister also raised the issue of unpaid compensation cess of Rs 63,000 crore for FY21 on the assumed rate of 7% growth even when the actual rate was de-growth of 3%. He reiterated that compensation for West Bengal alone was Rs 4,911 crore over and above the compensation already paid by the Centre.

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“Officers have decided, they have taken over the GIC, fitment committee and suggested 7% growth,” he said.

The Council had decided to meet separately on the matter of compensation cess within the next two to three months.

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