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Legal Capsule by Economic Law Practice

Interplay of Goods and Services Tax Laws vis-à-vis Customs Laws

There is no doubt, the introduction of GST has allowed its effects to be felt in other laws, including the Customs Law. This article highlights, via illustrations, the strong interplay of GST and Customs in relation to international trade transactions.

As per the provisions of Section 14 of the Customs Act, 1962 (Customs Act) read with Customs Valuation (Determination of Value of Imported Goods) Rules, 2007 (Customs Valuation Rules), the value of the imported goods is the transaction value of such goods where the buyer and seller of the goods are not related and price is the sole consideration for the sale. Specific additions  to the transaction value are prescribed under  Rule 10 of the Customs Valuation Rules. Given that value of certain services is included in the transaction value of imported goods, there is double taxation per se in respect of those services wherein there is no exemption of IGST on the services which already form part of the transaction value of the imported goods.

Under the GST regime, certain instances of transactions where there is an element of double taxation are given below:
  • Levy of IGST on ocean freight
One of the most contentious issues under the GST regime, which is affecting almost all importers across industries, is whether the importers are liable to pay IGST under Reverse Charge Mechanism (RCM) on ocean freight paid for services of transportation of goods up to customs station of clearance in India, provided by a person located in a non-taxable territory. This is, even if such freight is a part of Cost Insurance & Freight (CIF) value of imported goods  on  which   the   applicable   Customs  duty along with IGST (as a component of Customs duty) is already  paid.  Various  Advance Rulings have been pronounced clarifying that the importer is liable to pay IGST on RCM basis on ocean freight even if such freight is part of CIF value of imported goods51. While multiple writ petitions have been admitted across various High Courts in India challenging the levy of IGST on ocean freight under RCM inter alia on the ground that the same amounts to double taxation52, the final outcome of the petitions is still awaited.
  • Double taxation of service imports  in  certain other cases
Valuation provisions under Customs require adding value of certain services on to the transaction value of imported goods for the purpose of payment of Customs duty. In line with the same, exemption from payment  of  IGST under RCM has been granted to  royalty and license fee to the extent that the same is included in the value of goods imported on which IGST (as a component of Customs duty)   is paid53. However, no such exemption is currently available qua other services (such as commissions and brokerage, engineering, design work) which form a part of transaction value and wherein Customs duty and IGST (as a component of Customs duty) are already paid. This results in double taxation in respect of  such services.

It is interesting to note that this double taxation goes against the fundamental principle of GST which is to curb cascading effect of taxes.


Under the erstwhile Value Added Tax and Central Sales Tax laws, the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India54 had held that sale of goods by duty free shops at International Airports, which are undisputedly beyond the Customs frontier of  India, cannot be subjected to the levy of Sales Tax.

Under the GST regime, the controversy started with an Advance Ruling pronounced by the Delhi AAR55 wherein a view contrary to that of the apex Court was taken thereby holding that supplies made by a DFS to outbound passengers is amenable to GST as export under GST takes place only when goods cross territorial waters/airspace of India and not merely on crossing customs barriers. A similar view was also adopted by the Bombay High Court56 and Madhya Pradesh High Court57. However, a similar issue also came up for consideration before the Allahabad High Court58 wherein it was held that sales made by DFS constitute as exports as the goods are taken outside India and will not attract GST.

Given the conflicting judgments, recently, the Government of India granted exemption59 to any supply of goods by a retail outlet established  in the departure area of an international airport, beyond the immigration counters, to an outgoing international tourist, from IGST. Interestingly, the exemption from payment of IGST indicates that  the Government considers the supply to be otherwise, amenable to GST. This fact has also been categorically mentioned in a Circular60. Further, the exemption has only been granted to supplies that take place from the departure area and that too to ‘outgoing international tourists’.

The term ‘outgoing international tourist’ has been defined to mean a person not normally resident in India who enters India for a stay of not more than 6 months for legitimate non-immigrant purposes. A natural conclusion to this would be that no exemption will be available to an Indian resident purchasing goods from such retail outlets. This is for the simple reason that they cannot be called as persons who are not normally residents.
The limited exemption is expected to bring additional responsibility on the DFS since they  will now be required to maintain a  separate record of sales to ‘outgoing international tourists’ and also cast a responsibility upon DFS to scrutinize if the passenger qualifies for an exemption or not.

There is no doubt, given so much ambiguity, that GST and customs laws need to align. Amongst other things it will reduce expensive and long drawn litigation. This is where regulators will  need to step in.

Uncertainty in taxation laws, especially interplay between different tax laws and consequently long drawn out litigation, is a pain  point  with corporate India. Clarity on issues, consistency of implementing regulations and  continuous dialogue between government and businesses is the need of the hour.

In any indirect tax, classification of goods is very vital. The same has wide implications particularly in the case of a multi rate tax structure like GST. Customs adopt the global classification of goods, based on the Harmonized System of Nomenclature (HSN) read along with General Rules of Interpretation. The rate Notification of goods under GST regime also adopts the classification, rules of interpretation, section notes and chapter notes as specified under the Customs Tariff Act, 1975. However,  certain anomalies in classification are observed with respect to ‘goods’ and ‘services’. For example – any Intellectual Property Right (temporary transfer)  imported into India over a physical medium  is considered as goods for the purposes of Customs whereas under the GST, by virtue of Entry 5(c) of Schedule II of the Central GST Act, 2017 the same is classified as service. This may lead to issues in future if there is a difference in the IGST rate, double taxation , availment of any exemption benefit restricted to goods etc.

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