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Behind the GST scenes, a team of 10, countless questions

THREE DAYS into the Goods and Services Tax (GST) regime, amid sporadic protests by textile sector players and small traders, a team of about 10 central government officers stationed at the GST Feedback and Action Room of the Finance Ministry is putting in about 14 hours daily, starting from 8 am, to monitor real-time feedback on the transition from across the country. While the team has been deployed to address basic queries related to GST, it forwards the complex questions to designated officials for prompt responses, said Central Board of Excise and Customs (CBEC) Chairman Vanaja N Sarna.

“All queries are being placed on a broadsheet, where we can monitor everything that is coming in, and a senior additional commissioner-level officer helps to coordinate the work… they are filling in details of the feedback — like who is the caller, what time did the call come, what is the issue involved, if it can be solved at their level because they have been briefed and they are all officers of CBEC. They have undergone training, so they are able to answer most of the simple questions. But, if it’s a little more complex, they direct the queries to the concerned official,” said Sarna.

Revenue Secretary Hasmukh Adhia corroborated this, saying the mechanism is working smoothly at their end. The feedback, he told The Indian Express, is “so far, so good’’.

Officials from the states are also sending their feedback to the team, which is being monitored, alongside external feedback channels such as Twitter. “Twitter handles are being handled by Directorate General of Taxpayer Services. There are two Twitter handles and there is a group designated to handle this. They are mostly from the GST policy wing of the CBEC, they are divided among officers section-wise — registration, returns, refunds, migration,” said Sarna.

Citing examples from the feedback received so far, some of which involve manual billing at small shops, Sarna said: “I have come to know that there are shops and stores whose systems are perhaps not yet ready, so there is manual billing and it’s leading to long queues apparently. But, I would say give it about a month, their systems will be ready. And most of them should have been ready by now. If they have not done it, then it is unfortunate. They need to do it.”

“I am expecting that once customers start thronging, sheer business rivalry will drive them to do it, because they will realise that if somebody has to stand in a queue for a long time, the person is going to leave and go to another store… Most of the big stores have already tweaked it. I have seen some of the billings which have been done, and, very clearly, they talk about cess, CGST, SGST. That kind of break-up is already there,’’ she said.

The CBEC also analysed queries that were tweeted, based on which they brought out advertisements on Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) and are planning to issue pictorials of household consumption items in the next two-three days, grouping them into categories of food items, toiletries, stationeries among others to spread awareness about tax slabs, she added.

Taxpayers have been posting queries on the official response platforms, ranging from doubts about tax rates on various items, registration, composition scheme among others. For instance, new registrants claimed they had not received provisional ID, while some asked whether they needed separate registration for trade in goods and services.

A taxpayer from Tamil Nadu had doubts about the GST rate on the sewing machine and its spare parts, while another with a business of industrial machinery for automobile sector asked whether machines would have the same HSN code as the spares. Many asked whether they could opt for composition scheme, having already registered for GST, while there were some questions on whether restaurants with liquor licence could opt for composition scheme.

When asked about protests by some traders, especially from the textile sector, Sarna said it was largely on account of a “mental block’’, and the issues could be resolved if they approached the GST Seva Kendras that are being managed by the CBEC and state government officers.

“The kind of protests that are happening are of two types. One protest is by small and medium enterprises, which are not actually tech-savvy or are not ready. So, they feel that it is a hardship… we are hand-holding to the extent that the range offices of CBEC and the equivalent offices of states, every range division and commissionerate has actually got a GST Seva Kendra. Officers at the lowest level, i.e. the inspector and superintendent level, who man the range — all of them have state-of-the-art computers. So, all of them not only provide information on the law or rules but hand-hold an assessee who comes and says, ‘I don’t have a clue and don’t know how to do it’. Whether it’s migration, registration, return filing, payment, they will show it to them on screen, do it for them if necessary,” said Sarna.

Sarna also said that a lot of resistance from businesses is about becoming a part of tax net, as tax evasion will get difficult with transactions getting tracked. “The smaller set-ups are averse because the number of workers in their shops are less. They haven’t taken interest yet. They know they will have to come into the fold eventually. One of the biggest problems is the mental make-up of not wanting to, and the second is that you have been a small trader and you have always been evading. There are a lot of people who manage to evade and not come into the system. Today, to come into the system, they are worried because they have never done it before, and then everything they do is going to get tracked. So, it’s the fear of the known and it’s the fear of the unknown. It’s a combination of both,” she said.

She added that the “noise is about nothing’. “I think in all cases where nobody has paid any tax before and has to come into the tax bracket, there is a disturbance, a feeling, a mental block that why should I have to pay,” she added.

July being the first month of GST implementation, it will be “turbulent’’, she said, adding that the issues are then expected to come up in September, when the returns are filed. But, she said, people will get familiar with the system by then and understand and study the forms.

“There is offline filing also. So, if you prepare your returns well in advance, you don’t have to wait for September 10, you can do it much before. In fact, as your invoices are coming in, you can start preparing your return, you can prepare everything offline and upload when you have to. So, it’s not like you have to do this in a very troublesome way in a very short time,’’ said Sarna.

She also said that tax officers at over 3,900 ranges and 768 divisions across the country, manned by assistant commissioners, have been placed to help taxpayers. “That sheer gamut of people are ready to help. I don’t see it as a major problem,’’ she said.

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