'Robin Hood' tax on super rich sparks debate in India

Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman proposed a higher tax surcharge on India's super rich last Friday.
Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman proposed a higher tax surcharge on India's super rich last Friday.

Proponents say it will reduce rising inequity; others argue it discourages wealth creation

Last week's announcement of a higher tax surcharge on India's super rich has sparked a debate between those who say it will discourage wealth creation and others who call it a necessary intervention to reduce the country's entrenched and growing inequity.

In her Budget speech last Friday, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman proposed to raise the surcharge from 15 per cent to 25 per cent for those earning between 20 million and 50 million rupees (between S$397,000 and S$992,400) a year, and to 37 per cent for those earning more than 50 million rupees.

This takes the effective tax rate for the two groups to 39 per cent and 42.74 per cent, respectively.

The surcharge, popularly known as a "Robin Hood" tax, will help fund the government's development spending.

Mumbai-based investor Harsh Gupta was among those who criticised the move, saying it will "hurt growth and not raise much revenue" in a Twitter post.

"The skilled are mobile in today's world, India is 4 per cent of global GDP, 40 per cent plus taxes not justified for our services," he added.

Critics say the enhanced surcharge could push more wealthy Indians to emigrate to countries where they pay similar levels of income tax but get to enjoy a better living environment, unlike the polluted air and poor infrastructure in their own country.

India witnessed the third-highest outflow of wealthy individuals last year. Nearly 5,000 millionaires, or high-net-worth individuals (HNWIs), left the country, making up 2 per cent of the total number of HNWIs in India, according to the Global Wealth Migration Review 2019 by AfrAsia Bank and research firm New World Wealth.

Some have urged the government to widen the ambit of tax-paying individuals instead of just raising taxes on the rich.

IN NEED OF GREATER FUNDING

Despite the growth that we have seen for the wealthy, we have a situation where we see the starvation of the public sector. In areas like education and healthcare, government spending has remained more or less stagnant at around 1.2 and 4 per cent of the GDP.

'' MR AMITABH BEHAR, chief executive officer of Oxfam India, on the stark income and development inequity.

 
 

Taxes on the super rich have been going up in recent years, with a surcharge of 10 per cent first imposed in 2013 on those earning more than 10 million rupees annually.

Those affected by the new surcharge make up only a small percentage of the country's 1.3 billion people. The Economic Times newspaper reported that only around 0.16 per cent of those who filed tax returns in 2016-2017 reported gross incomes between 10 million and 50 million rupees.

Mr Amitabh Behar, CEO of Oxfam India, described the additional tax burden as a "welcome but extremely inadequate step" in India's efforts to address its stark income and development inequity.

The international charity group, in a report earlier this year, said the fortune of India's billionaires had increased by 35 per cent last year while 136 million Indians who make up the poorest 10 per cent continued to remain in debt since 2004.

"Despite the growth that we have seen for the wealthy, we have a situation where we see the starvation of the public sector," Mr Behar told The Straits Times. "In areas like education and healthcare, government spending has remained more or less stagnant at around 1.2 and 4 per cent of the GDP. In this context, I would have been far happier had we reintroduced inheritance and wealth tax too," he added.

Those pushing for greater taxes on the super rich argue that India's recent decision is not an aberration but in keeping with what developed countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom are doing. Japan and Denmark have even higher tax rates on the super rich.

"These are societies affluent Indians aspire to be part of and whose public facilities and infrastructure they admire. Such development, however, is not possible in India unless the government can get the tax collection it needs," said Ms Sonu Iyer, a tax partner and national leader with EY India.

"It is about time that India's affluent begin to think about what it is that can make a difference. If a higher contribution makes that difference, one should be happy to make that contribution so long as... a general improvement starts to show in the economy," she told ST.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 11, 2019, with the headline ''Robin Hood' tax on super rich sparks debate in India'. Print Edition | Subscribe