It’s reasonably well known that income from agriculture attracts no tax in India.
What isn’t quite as well known is that of more than 400,000 taxpayers claiming exemption for agricultural income in the assessment year 2014-15, the biggest were seed giant Kaveri Seeds—it claimed Rs 186.63 crore exemption and made a profit of Rs 215.36 crore before tax—and multinational Monsanto India, which claimed Rs 94.40 crore as exemption from agricultural income and earned Rs 138.74 crore profit before tax.
Agro-companies growing crops are allowed the same tax relief as individuals in states levying no agricultural income tax, although some states do indeed tax some kinds of farming.
“Allowing big farmers—individuals or companies farming more than say 30 acres—agricultural income-tax exemption makes no sense,” said R Durairaj, CEO and founder, Mother India Farms, an organic farm. Durairaj farms 200 acres of family land and supports agricultural-income-tax reform—although he does not pay any tax on his agricultural income.
On 39 million Indians, falls the country’s tax burden
The rural crises that beset India are unprecedented this century, but agriculture also hides a number of companies and rich farmers, whom no finance minister will tax–although with their numbers declining, as we shall see, these are reasonably easy to identify.
“Agricultural income is exempt from taxation in spite of large agricultural holdings,” said the 2014 Third Tax Administration Reform Commission (TARC) report. “…a large number of rich farmers, who earn more than salaried employees in the cities, get away with paying no tax at all in view of the government’s lack of will to consider an agricultural income tax.”
Taxing large agriculturists would help widen India’s taxpayer base—as the 2016 Economic Survey recommended—beyond the current 5.5%, or 39 million earning individuals, who pay tax.
The aversion to taxing agriculture is the fallout of a colonial experience when farmers were taxed, but it is not very widely know that some states do indeed tax some farms.
Why agriculture has–largely–not been taxed for 130 years
When India introduced income tax in 1886 under colonial rule, income tax on agriculture was kept out of its ambit because of existing land levies and the right to collect any form of agricultural income tax was vested with the main colonial administration.
In 1935, the right to land revenue, and to potential agricultural income tax, was transferred to the provinces, today’s states. Since then, each state has developed its own agricultural income- tax policy, with wide interstate disparities.
Consider these examples:
Uttar Pradesh introduced agricultural income tax in 1948, and repealed it in 1957, one of six states to flip flop thus in the first decade post Independence, “to move away from oppressive agricultural taxes under the British, one of the reasons for the freedom struggle”, said Indira Rajaraman, leading economist and RBI Chair Professor, National Institute of Public Finance and Policy, New Delhi.
Or, because “the meagre prospect of revenue of the tax on income arising from cultivation of non-plantation crops and also the growing cost of collection compelled some states to abandon this tax in course of time”, writes Biswadeb Chatterjee in Tax Performance in Indian States: A Comparative Study.
Farmers tax exempt could be taxed based on the area sown with high-return crops, proposed Rajaraman in a 2004 paper Taxing Agriculture in a Developing Country: A Possible Approach. High-return crop cultivators whose yield falls below a stipulated threshold would be exempted for the sake of fairness.
She suggested, in her 2003 book, A Fiscal Domain for Panchayats, that such tax be collected by village councils.
“Property tax is paid locally, why not tax on agricultural income?” said Rajaraman. “Agriculture thrives only when law and order prevails, and the panchayat governs locally. Farming makes use of local utilities, so it should give back locally.”
That would make local governance more responsive than it might by receiving handouts from Delhi, as the recent budget provided for with Rs 2.78 lakh crore ($41.34 billion) in grants to panchayats (rural councils) and urban local bodies, or above Rs 80 lakh per panchayat.
“A panchayat that benefits from tax collection is more likely to ensure compliance,” said Rajaraman, “than a distant state government.”