Two Indian tax cases that have now largely run their course illustrate difficulties faced by countries determined to tax major economic activity in their own territory by non-residents.
India stands out as a rare jurisdiction determined to tax major foreign investors that greatly gain from economic activity there.
The cases show how difficult it can be to prevent profit shifting to tax havens, such as the Cayman Islands which features in each of the cases considered in this blog. The Cayman Islands is a haven of financial secrecy with no direct resident taxation of companies that can attain Cayman resident status.
The Indian cases have comparable facts and have followed a similar course:
In 2007 Vodafone Group PLC (British) sought to re-organise its nationwide telecommunications business in India. So Vodafone International Holdings BV (VIHBV) acquired the share capital of a Cayman Islands holding company from Hutchison Telecommunication International Ltd giving Vodafone Group PLC 67% control of Hutch Essar, an Indian joint venture company that owned the business’s Indian telecommunications licences.
A “crore” is 107. The Indian Income Tax Department sought to tax VIHBV on a capital gain of around Rs 12,000 crore with penalties on the transfer of telecommunications licences, the capital assets of the Indian business, re-organised between non-residents.
In 2006-7 Cairn Energy PLC (British) re-organised the largest privately owned oil and gas business in India by transferring its shares in Cairn India Holdings, a Cayman Islands company to Cairn India, an Indian company.
In 2011 Cairn India merged with Vedanta Resources, another Indian mining conglomerate. The Indian Income Tax Department sought to tax a capital gain of around Rs 24,500 crore on these transfers of the capital assets of the Cairn India business.
The capital gains reflected growth and the increase in value in Indian-based business assets. India sought to subject these Indian-based gains to taxation based on their source in India.
Vodafone contested their assessment and was successful before the Supreme Court of India. The Supreme Court found that the Indian Tax Department couldn’t tax VIHBV, a non-resident, on gains it realised in the Vodafone re-organisation as there was no relevant capital asset of VIHBV of, or facilitation of a look-through to a capital asset in, the Indian Income-tax Act 1961 in its pre-amendment version.
Following that loss in the Supreme Court the Indian government amended the Income-tax Act 1961 with the Finance Act 2012 to retrospectively target indirect gains made by non-residents on realisation of Indian capital assets. Section 9(1)(i) of the Income-tax Act 1961, with retrospective effect from 1961, treats income in the nature of capital gains from the direct or indirect transfers of Indian capital assets between non-residents as Indian-sourced income.
The retrospectivity was justified as a “clarification” of how the Indian tax law is to apply but the impact of the amendment suggest this government descriptor was euphemistic.
Comparison with Australian tax on indirect gains on non-residents’ assets
There is no comparable between Section 9(1)(i) of the Income-tax Act 1961 of India and the Australian and most other taxation systems where source taxation of gains on moveable assets made by non-residents is generally not pursued unless the non-resident has a direct interest in an asset used in a local business permanent establishment.
Australia has conformed with OECD model treaty conventions, and so most Australian treaties are based on, or are comparable to the OECD model convention which provides:
4. Gains derived by a resident of a Contracting State from the alienation of shares deriving more than 50 per cent of their value directly or indirectly from immovable property situated in the other Contracting State may be taxed in that other State.Article 13(4) of the OECD model convention
This substantially confines when Australia and these other places will tax non-residents on their disposals of shares in companies. That is the source country only taxes gains on shares of a non-resident who is resident of the other treaty state where shares reflect immovable interests such as in real estate, mines, forests, fisheries etc.
The rationale of the confinement, as I understand it, is to avoid double and multiple taxation arising when countries tax dealings by non-residents outside of, or with no connection to, their own country especially understanding the country where a person is resident is expected to tax the person on their worldwide income. But the confinement in Article 13(4) and the like excludes the right to tax indirect gains enjoyed by non-residents on movable property that does have a true connection with the country such as the movable business property in India of Vodafone and Cairn owned by Cayman Islands companies.
So these treaties don’t concede rights to countries to tax a non-resident to gains on shares reflecting growth in capital assets used in a local business realised indirectly through a sale of company shares of the non-resident. Instead that right to tax is ceded to the treaty partner where the owner of the shares is tax resident in that other country.
Comparison with taxes on business profits under OECD-like treaties
This is in contrast to business profits with a source in, say, Australia where Australia has first right to tax non-residents under OECD model-like articles when a non-resident, though tax resident in the other treaty country, has a permanent establishment in Australia.
In other words Australia, like many other countries but unlike India, generally does not pursue source income taxation of gains on Australian assets of non-residents made outside of a business permanent establishment. Capital gains on Australian assets realised by non-residents, and not just treaty partner residents, that are not Taxable Australian Property (I capitalise this defined term in the Income Tax Assessment Act (ITAA) 1997) are not subjected to the Australian CGT regime under Division 855 of the ITAA 1997 though capital gains of non-residents made on Taxable Australian Property which extends to:
- immovable real estate, mines, etc. and interests in them – see section 855-25 of the ITAA 1997: that is, indirect interests in these too are Taxable Australian Property, and options to acquire them; and
- assets that are business assets used in permanent establishment though:
- inclusion of permanent establishment business assets in Taxable Australian Property can be subject to treaty constraints; and
- indirect interests in business assets used in permanent establishment are not included in Taxable Australian Property;
(see the table in section 855-15 of the ITAA 1997;)
are subject to Australian CGT.
The limits on non-residents relying on treaty protection to resist Australian tax on indirect capital gains are also evident in Australia in Resource Capital Fund IV LP v Commissioner of Taxation  FCAFC 51 which again featured the Cayman Islands. The Full Federal Court found that a Cayman Islands limited partnership with U.S. resident limited partners could not invoke Article 13 in the Australia USA Double Tax Treaty to prevent Australia taxing capital gains on sales of shares in a limited partnership (treated as a company under Australian tax law) which held interests in immovable mining assets in Australia.
Australian opportunities for non-residents and tax havens
Where Australian shares or other business assets aren’t or don’t reflect interests in immovable property or direct interests in permanent establishment assets (other than Taxable Australian Assets in Australia’s case) then Australia and other OECD member states generally don’t look to tax non-residents on gains on them say by imposing withholding taxes to assure collection from non-residents.
It follows that these countries give non-residents based in low-tax jurisdictions, or non-residents who structure their holdings through tax havens, much opportunity to invest in movable Australian assets including brands, digital assets, designs, licences, other intellectual property and goodwill on a virtual CGT free basis.
It is known that the rather extreme minimal or zero tax outcomes these non-residents can access by offshoring their interests are a principal driver of “private equity” opportunities where restructure into, or using, either genuine or contrived non-resident ownership is a common feature.
Desirable destinations for foreign investment
Australia and other OECD nations supposedly encourage and compete for foreign investment by their light touch of capital gains on moveable property connected to local business which non-residents can realise their interests in offshore. Patent boxes, conduit foreign income exemptions, CGT participation exemptions come to mind as light touches on non-residents onshore.
Clearly, and rather dramatically, the Indian government is not so willing to give up the huge tax revenue at stake although there is awareness in India about the impact of their policy of pursuing non-residents for taxes on India-generated capital gains on India as a desirable destination for foreign investment.
The retrospectivity stumbling block
India also tried to introduce General Anti Abuse Rules (GAAR) in 2012 to retrospectively attack the Vodafone and Cairn arrangements however India was not able to implement their GAAR until 2018-19.
The retrospective elements of Section 9(1)(i) of the Income-tax Act 1961 and the proposed GAAR are controversial and the retrospective application of Section 9(1)(i) by the Indian Tax Department, especially with the imposition of penalty, now appears to be its stumbling block in its pursuit of Vodafone and Cairn.
Both Vodafone and Cairn have lately been able to rely on international treaties (not tax treaties) to resist Indian taxation under the retrospective law on the basis that imposition of the retrospective law was unfair and inequitable.
India and the Netherlands entered into a Bilateral Investment Treaty in 1995. In the Vodafone case VIHBV obtained an order against the Indian government for violation of the treaty at the Permanent Court of Arbitration (The Hague, Singapore seat) as the tax, interest and penalties assessed to VIHBV under retrospective legislation violated the fair and equitable treatment of Dutch investment required under the treaty. Simply stated VIHBV was held to account against a tax law that was not in place at the time it undertook Vodafone India re-organisation and when VIHBV would have returned its income in India.
In December 2020, three months after the Vodafone arbitration, Cairn obtained a similar arbitrated order under a similar Bilateral Investment Treaty between the UK and India.
The Indian government can still pursue rights under these treaties to appeal to the High Court in Singapore however they will be aware that this court will be reluctant to disturb Permanent Court of Arbitration findings. Nevertheless it is surprising that both arbitrations treated the Vodafone investment as Dutch and the Cairn investment as British respectively even though the investments in India in both cases were by Cayman Islands entities presumably outside of the coverage of these bilateral investment treaties.
It seems clear enough that countries with the will and fortitude to do so, like India, can impose tax laws which bring gains on offshore holdings of non-residents which indirectly reflect or look through to gains on onshore capital assets used in local businesses to local tax. However these countries will be pitted against powerful interests willing to structure through tax havens and keen to resist taxes relying on any weakness in the imposition of their tax collecting law.
In that context legislation that takes effect retrospectively, even where effective under local law, is a serious flaw in the international treaty domain. Further, like in the Vodafone and Cairn cases, these countries may find tax pursuit of non-residents stymied by:
- treaty commitments;
- international norms largely set and dominated by the OECD nations; and
- reputational risk that the country does not welcome foreign investment;
with tax havens like the Cayman Islands and others ever ready to facilitate offshore realisation of gains effectively tax free for their clients.