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On 8 December, a particular tender took accounting software makers by surprise. It was from the GST Network—the company that provides the tech infrastructure to power India’s new taxation system, the Goods and Services Tax (GST). The tender called for bids to provide accounting and billing software for small businesses.

A new tax roll out in July and an accounting software in December? That’s not unusual. The government routinely provides tools that citizens can use to comply with a law, like an income tax portal for citizens. Or in this case, a tool to help businesses upload returns onto GSTN or the Network’s portal for free. But what the tender float indicates is that the government is going a step further and wading into the realm of what enterprise software companies like Tally, Zoho and SAP do. Which is to provide tools that will make a business more efficient. It’s a move that’s very similar to what the government did to promote the new and easy payment system Unified Payments Interface in 2016. Instead of waiting for banks to launch their own apps to transfer money using the new payment method, it came up with its own UPI app called BHIM. With GST, too, it is looking to put a government-endorsed version of a software in the market, which will compete with other software makers.

The Network, which is the single destination for about 9 million registered taxpayers to file about 3.2 billion invoices every month, came to this decision after a section of small taxpayers made representations to the government over the last few months. They needed an accounting software to be able to record all their sales and transaction data, to help them file their returns digitally, says Prakash Kumar, the CEO of GST Network. In the run-up to generate a GST return, businesses need to keep a record of all their transactions. Most small entities do this manually. And the Network wants to digitise it.

But the Network is not for building it by itself. Instead, it is asking the accounting software makers to come up with a barebones version of their commercial product that is already in the market. It will pick the best five and encourage businesses to use that. And for free.

In 2017, the government had two key agendas. One was to drive digital payments and two, to get everyone to adopt GST. To drive the former, it introduced BHIM. And with different aspects of GST still undergoing changes, it is willing to do anything it takes to get people to embrace the taxation system, with warts and all.

The most awaited development of the year, GST, quickly turned into a nightmare for the government. Five different tax structures, an unstable infrastructure that can’t handle a large volume of returns, pushing deadlines for filing returns, and other inefficiencies have bogged it down.

AUTHOR

Arundhati Ramanathan

Arundhati is interested in how people use money in the digital age and how new economies will take shape based on that interaction. She writes the newsletter Ka-Ching! every Monday. She lives in Bengaluru and has spent over 12 years reporting and writing on various subjects.

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