For all ministers, the top priority item on the agenda is taxes on Covid-related goods, vaccines and drugs. But this is where the common interest ends. The Opposition-ruled states, which are looking to flex their muscles after BJP and its allies lost assembly elections in Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, are demanding zero levy on Covid-vaccines, against 5% at present.
The Centre, however, believes that the balance hasn’t tilted against it, given that states such as Tamil Nadu did not toe the BJP line and were more often on the other side.
“Since the government is the buyer of vaccines and the government is the consumer, it does not make sense to impose GST. In any case, states are also being asked to buy vaccines, which adds to the burden,” said Chattisgarh health minister T S Singh Deo. “If you can have a mechanism for SEZs for zero tax, the same should be applied to Covid-related goods,” he added.
West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee had demanded zero GST on vaccines as well as other items, but Union finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman had said this was not feasible, given that entities in the production chain will not be able to claim input tax credit if there was no tax on the final product. The Opposition-ruled states — which had a joint meeting on Wednesday to chart out a strategy for the Council meeting — are suggesting zero-rating, which means that the entire value chain, from raw material to the finished product, is exempted from tax but there is no restriction on taking tax credits.
Some of the states are also demanding a similar facility for life-saving drugs, arguing that customs duty along with 18% GST imposes a stiff burden on patients suffering from Covid.
Besides, the Opposition-ruled states are going to demand a high level of compensation, arguing that their revenues are impacted by the second wave. The states also want the compensation formula to be reworked, saying that they had to borrow from the market last year and generate some resources on their own to meet the shortfall.
But there are other issues which had been put on the backburner in 2017 when the BJP and its allies were gaining control of more states. Punjab FM Manpreet Badal, for instance, wants one of his state colleagues to be appointed as the vice chairman of the GST Council, which is headed by the Union finance minister. When the GST Council was set up, West Bengal FM Amit Mitra was seen to be eyeing the job, although the issue never came up for discussion.
“There is a lot of ad-hocism and officers are deciding on issues without states being consulted. Similarly, we need a proper GST Council secretariat, which handles the agenda instead of the Centre, which is an interested party preparing it,” Badal said.