In a unanimous decision, the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague in September 2020 ruled that India’s retrospective demand of Rs 22,100 crore as capital gains and withholding tax imposed on the British telecommunication company for a 2007 deal was “in breach of the guarantee of fair and equitable treatment”. The court has also asked India not to pursue the tax demand any more against Vodafone Group.
In May 2007, Vodafone had bought a 67% stake in Hutchison Whampoa for $11 billion. This included the mobile telephony business and other assets of Hutchison in India. In September that year, the India government for the first time raised a demand of Rs 7,990 crore in capital gains and withholding tax from Vodafone, saying the company should have deducted the tax at source before making a payment to Hutchison.
The same year, the then Finance Minister, the late Pranab Mukherjee, circumvented the Supreme Court’s ruling by proposing an amendment to the Finance Act, thereby giving the Income Tax Department the power to retrospectively tax such deals. The Act was passed by Parliament that year and the onus to pay the taxes fell back on Vodafone. The case had by then become infamous as the ‘retrospective taxation case’.
Countries use this route to correct any anomalies in their taxation policies that have, in the past, allowed companies to take advantage of such loopholes. While governments often use a retrospective amendment to taxation laws to “clarify” existing laws, it ends up hurting companies that had knowingly or unknowingly interpreted the tax rules differently.