For a government concerned about the reduced buoyancy in tax receipts since 2007-08, the idea of raising the marginal rate of personal income tax for the super-rich as mooted by some leading economists can indeed be rewarding. Such a move would be in sync with the concept of progressive tax rates, key to what is defined as “equity” in this context. If the top rate for the really affluent is hiked by a modest 10 percentage points, it would easily give the government leeway to raise the exemption threshold and leave nearly 90% of existing taxpayers out of the tax net. In turn, this would raise the standard of living of these people by enhancing their spending power, while also promoting savings. This is even as the rate hike for the creamy layer of the taxpayer base would increase revenue productivity, if evasion is efficiently tackled. As the accompanying table shows, most economically advanced countries have marginal tax rates higher than India’s 30% and the US is about to raise it further.
For the UPA government, it would also be politically gainful to be seen as freeing millions of people from the tax bracket.
Mind you, of the 1.24 billion Indians, just 32.4 million pay tax on income. That means not even three persons among 100 pay income tax. And, according to information furnished by the finance ministry to the parliamentary standing committee, of this 32.4 million taxpayers, some 400,000 reporting taxable income higher than Rs 20 lakh paid over Rs 93,000 crore as income tax in 2011-12. In other words, 1.3% of the taxpayer pool accounted for 63% of the total personal income tax (PIT) collection of Rs 1.5 lakh crore in the year (as per the Budget documents, PIT collection in 2011-12 stood at Rs 1.7 lakh crore, inclusive of recovery of arrears, etc.) Persons with taxable incomes up to Rs 5 lakh were 28 million in number or 89% of the total taxpayer base, but contributed just Rs 15,000 crore or 10% of the government’s PIT receipts in 2011-12. What gives more credence to the economists’ proposal is that PIT receipts, conventionally the bigger direct tax item for the central government, have in recent years of economic prosperity ceded that space to corporate tax, and now lag by a huge margin. True, moderate tax rates encourage compliance, yet it would be reasonable to expect those with very