GST Council deferred the decision on levying a cess on sugar on May 4th. A union cess is problematic because the revenue earned by levying it does not form a part of the ‘divisible pool’ of resources, meaning that no part of it goes to state governments.
The trick by the union government is not new. A 2016 EPW article had made a note of this trend:
It is observed that over the years there has been a proliferation of cess and surcharges in union tax revenues. As these levies are not shareable with the states, this has resulted in effective reduction in the divisible pool of resources available for transfers to states. The share of cess and surcharge in the gross tax revenues of the union government has been rising over the years. It increased from 9.43% in 2011–12 to 16.7% in 2015–16 (RE).
Quite naturally, state finance ministers opposed the introduction of the 5 percent cess on sugar that was being pushed by the union government. However, this proposal was put on hold after a meeting of the GST Council. The fact that the state governments had a say over the union government’s levy of a cess and were able to block it indicates that the GST Council is on the right track. In a limited sense, it is emerging as a powerful institution for intergovernmental bargaining. This is a good sign for making cooperative federalism a reality.