Friday, March 11, 2016

How to tax e-commerce businesses'? - Equalisation Levy is an answer

1. Background
Finance Minister has proposed Equalisation Levy (EL) through Finance Bill, 2016, Chapter VIII.
E-commerce companies like Face Book, Google, etc. are growing very fast, earning substantial revenues and some of them are avoiding Income-tax in the Country of Source (COS) as well as Country of Residence (COR). E-commerce business is growing at the fastest rate globally and no Government in the world can allow this business to go tax free.
It is now admitted by OECD and other concerned authorities that under the present rules of international taxation, E-commerce companies can escape taxation. The main reason is that under the existing rules of international taxation, COS can tax a non-resident providing E-commerce services only if the non-resident has a permanent establishment (PE) in the COS. E-commerce companies do not need PE in any COS. They can set up the companies in tax havens and avoid COR tax also. For the last few years, there was strong public criticism – in Britain and other European countries - of these companies escaping taxation. In the light of the American and European financial crisis, G20 countries asked OECD to come out with recommendations for necessary modifications in the existing rules so that E-commerce companies also can be taxed.
BEPS Action Report No. 1 on Digital Commerce has discussed these issues. It has not made any specific recommendation. However, it has given three different options. One of the options is Equalisation Levy. When a company resident in COS earns revenue from E-commerce business, that company has to pay indirect taxes as well as Income-tax. However, when a non-resident company provides E-commerce services, it escapes Income-tax. Equalisation Levy tries to make a level playing field for both – Resident & Non-Resident.
2. Finance Bill Proposals
2.1 Only Non-Resident earners:
Equalisation Levy is proposed to be charged only on non-residents of India. Its very purpose is to protect Indian Residents. Hence Indian
E-commerce companies like Flipkart, Snap Deal etc. are not liable to Equalisation Levy. If a company is non-resident today and it opens a subsidiary or a PE in India to provide E-commerce services in India; it will be liable to normal Indian Income-tax and it will escape Equalisation Levy.
2.2 Only Services:
Equalisation Levy is charged only for services. There is no such tax on goods sold through e-commerce. Simple reason is: Somehow, the rules of international taxation have distinguished goods and services. This weakness in the system continues at present. Finance Minister is not trying to remove a global weakness through its budget proposals. The impact is: Even after the budget is passed, if someone purchases goods on e-commerce platforms, he will not have to deduct Equalisation Levy at source.
2.3 No Characterisation, No PE:
EL is so designed that there is no characterisation issue. One does not have to determine whether it is a business income, royalty, or FTS or any other category of income. There is no need to determine Permanent Establishment or any other nexus to India. Simply because a non-resident earns revenue from India he is liable to EL.
2.4 Independent Tax:
This is not Income-tax. Chapter VIII of Finance Bill does not become part of the Income-tax law. Like STT, it will remain a separate tax. Hence, Double Tax Avoidance Agreements are not applicable to EL.
2.5 Compliance:
2.5-1 Ideally, the responsibility to pay tax and file EL returns should be on the non-resident. However, enforcing these obligations on a non-resident requires a lot of ground work. Best method of ensuring compliance by Non-Residents who have no PE in India would be – to ask all banks, credit card companies and Payment Gateways to deduct EL before making the remittance abroad. However, at present, there is no mechanism under which EL can be deducted by credit card companies from payments made through credit cards. The E-Commerce Committee had a discussion with Reserve Bank of India. And RBI confirmed that at present, it will not be possible to impose TDS through credit cards. (Note: In this article, by the term "TDS" we mean Deduction of Equalisation Levy at Source.)In the circumstances, the only mechanism available to the Government of India was to recover the tax from the Indian resident payer.
It may be noted that the present proposal is a work-in-progress. A lot of work needs to be done. Government in collaboration with Reserve Bank of India may work out a mechanism whereby any payment from an Indian resident to a non-resident can be separated if it is an E-commerce payment. Once this step is implemented, EL can be deducted by credit card companies, banks and all payment gateways. Until this is done, a compromise has to be accepted. This is what the Finance Bill proposes. The onus of compliance is on Resident Payers.

Under the Finance Bill proposal, Indian resident payers will deduct EL at source and pay to the Government of India. Whole mechanism for charging of tax, payment of tax, filing of returns and assessments – all can be completed on internet. The tax deductor may not have to meet Income-tax department.

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