Are there industries in India more profitable than the IT industry? If there is one, it must have an awesome business model. Companies like Infosys make 25% net margins after taxes. At $20B in revenues, the industry is no longer a small industry needing encouragement.
So why does the IT industry not pay corporate income tax? Not just that, under the SEZ act, that tax holiday will now be extended, indefinitely.
In the late 80s, early 90s, the STPI Act was used to incentivize the then fledgling IT industry. It was needed. The Software Technology Parks were needed. The cost of a telecom link to the US was high. Many small companies in the STP could share a telecom link. Custom duties were very high on computer hardware, software and networking equipment which could make IT company uncompetitive. So there was the duty-drawback. Last but not least, there was a 10 year tax holiday on export revenue out of the STP. For all this the companies within the STP had to be 100% export oriented.
So far so good. I might have an issue with the tax holiday, but the incentives were timely and well directed. The industry, led by a few major companies like Infosys, TCS and Wipro grabbed the opportunity. Later their ranks swelled with many other smaller companies. Soon the BPO industry (also called ITES or IT enabled services, I think to justify their need for special treatment) also swung into action.
Fast forward to 2006. We now have a large and still rapidly growing IT and BPO industry entirely focused on offshore services to developed markets. Most of the larger firms are very profitable. The custom duties are way down. Telecom bandwidth is dirt cheap. So why in the world would the industry need more tax breaks?
That it doesn’t is very clear. Not just because of the reasons I give. But because industry leaders like Nandan Nilekani say that they don’t. However, if the SEZ provision is available, it would be irresponsible for them to not secure the best tax status for their shareholders.
The income tax lost to the IT industry, by my calculations came to $1.3 B last year. That would be a pretty significant % of the Indian govt. budget. Why would the Indian govt. run a deficit budget, skimp on investment in infrastructure yet spare the wealthy shareholders in Indian IT companies? One could argue that since deficit financing causes inflation, the government is taking from the common man and giving to the wealthy shareholders of IT companies. It is no wonder that the Finance ministry does not support this loss of revenue.
You could also argue that a tax holiday has no impact in the IT industry. If you make profits, you get the benefit of the tax break. But if you make profits, why do you need the tax break? The IT industry is not a capital intensive industry like say the steel industry, where a certain RoI must be met, beyond just being profitable.
The SEZ Act might make sense for many, especially manufacturing industries. For the IT industry it does not. But, profitable industries have wealthy industrialists. Some of them know how to lobby the government. Then there are the real estate developers, who too stand to gain by getting the right to develop the SEZ parks. They too have deep pockets and political connections.
In 10 years when we need to take a relook at the SEZ act, the IT industry will be even bigger. The industrialists will be wealthier. If I were a betting man, I’d say, this ain’t going away.