The Supreme Court recently decided (in Southern Technologies v. JCIT) an interesting point of law in relation to the tax treatment of non-banking financial companies (NBFCs). The issue before the Court was whether the Revenue is entitled to treat a “Provision for NPA” as ‘income’ under Section 2(24) of the Income Tax Act, 1961, while computing the profits and gains of business under Sections 28 to 43D. This “Provision for NPA” is required to be debited to the P&L Account in the books of account, in terms of the 1998 RBI Directions.
Section 36(1)(vii) of the Income Tax Act originally provided that the amount of any bad debt written off in the accounts of the assessee is a deductible expense. A retrospective Explanation was added in 2001, however. This was to clarify that a provision for bad debts is not included within the scope of the Section. In yet another retrospective amendment (with effect from 1989), clause vii(a) was added to Section 36(1). This clause provided that a scheduled bank could deduct provisions for bad and doubtful debts. Furthermore, Section 43D of the Act was also amended to provide that income in relation to certain bad and doubtful debts (as prescribed by the Reserve Bank) shall be chargeable to tax only on actual receipt of the income, or on actual credit to the P&L account in the account books. Despite these amendments, which provided some relief to banks, no relief was provided to NBFCs. Sections 36(1)(viia) and 43D do not apply to NBFCs. However, in its 1998 Directions, the RBI required NBFCs to show non-performing assets as income only when income is actually received. Thus, NBFCs are not entitled to show NPAs as income in their books (in terms of the RBI directions); yet they are subjected to tax on that alleged income (as the relevant Sections of the Income Tax Act do not apply to NBFCs). This anomalous situation was challenged by an NBFC assessee in Southern Technologies.
The assessee relied on the “real income theory”. This theory has been developed in relation to writing off bad debts – State Bank of Travancore v. CIT (subsequently overruled on the basis of specific circulars). This is discussed in more detail in this post. In Southern Technologies, the principle was used by the assessee NBFC to contend that it was bound to follow the methods of accounting under the 1998 Directions; and under that prescribed method, a “provision for NPA” actually represented a depreciation in the value of assets. This – the assessee contended – was deductible under Section 37(1) of the Act. The basic contention was that applying the real income theory, the “Provision for NPA” debited to the P&L account under the 1998 Directions and shown accordingly in the balance sheet, cannot be treated as income and added back in computing the profits and gains of business. The Revenue contended that the “provision for NPA” was actually nothing but a reserve; and could be added back. The assessee in rejoinder pointed out the difference between a “provision” and a “reserve”. Essentially, a “provision” (contended the assessee) was a charge on the profits; while a “reserve” was an appropriation of the profits. “Provisions” are a pre-tax charge to the P&L account; while “reserves” are created out of post-tax profits subject to their being adequate net profits. (Perhaps, it might be useful to think of a “provision” as being similar to diversion of income by overriding title; and a “reserve” as being similar to application of income – the former is not “income” while the latter is, under settled principles.) Furthermore, in the case of “provisions” created statutorily, under the real income principle, they cannot be charged to tax or added back unless a specific provision requires so. The Revenue contended that the “Provision for NPA” was in substance a reserve, and could not be deducted unless a specific provision required so. The assessee supported its contention by referring to provisions such as Sections 40A(7), 43B etc. These provisions specifically add back certain “provisions” such as those statutorily required for excise duty, gratuity, provident fund etc. The absence of such a clause in the Act allowing addition back of a provision for NPAs was stated to be indicative for the fact that a “Provision for NPA” – required under the RBI Directions – could not be added back.
The Court rejected this argument of the assessee. It was held that the RBI Directions and the Income Tax Act operate in distinct fields. While NBFCs must accept the concept of “income” as evolved by the RBI under its Directions after deducting the provisions for NPA; this treatment “is confined to presentation/disclosure and has nothing to do with the computation of taxable income under the Income Tax Act.” Further, “… a provision for NPA debited to the P&L account under the 1998 Directions is only a notional expense and, therefore, there would be add back to that extent in the computation of total income under the Income Tax Act…”
The judgment is further analysed by V. Niranjan in two posts on Indian Corporate Law, available as Part I and Part II.