At a time when even deficit hawks are clamouring for an expansive fiscal policy to fight the severe economic consequences of Covid-19, it will be tempting for the government to exploit every opportunity to fund the welfare programmes. When oil prices first dropped to less than $30 per barrel, the Modi government had promptly increased the central excise duty. However, this will not result in increased revenue due to the enforced lockdowns and halting of economic activity.
If the objective is to help the economy rebound and bolster government finances, there are better ways than raising petrol taxes. In fact, lowering it will increase the disposable income of consumers, who will go out and spend more on other goods and services. Apart from increasing incomes, it will also help the government collect higher indirect taxes. Many businesses, which are reliant on petrol, such as transport and logistics, will get a much-needed fillip by reduced petrol prices.
Since the price of oil has a cascading effect on the general price level in the economy, maintaining petrol and diesel prices at the same level or increasing it can lead to higher inflation and can further dampen their demand. Moreover, additional revenue gained by the government is offset by increased subsidy payments and revenue foregone from sectors dependent on oil. Further, since petrol is outside the purview of GST, states will want their fair share as well and will competitively increase VAT on petrol.
The additional amount that can be raised by petrol taxes is about Rs 30,000 crore, which will not make a dent to the Rs 8-10 lakh crore required for the post-pandemic economic revival package. It’s time to pass on the benefit to the consumers.
This appeared in The Print’s Talkpoint