Supreme Court: The 2-judge bench of AM Khanwilkar and Dinesh Maheshwari, JJ has held that for bringing any particular foreign exchange receipt within the ambit of Section 80-O of Income Tax Act for deduction, it must be a consideration attributable to information and service contemplated by Section 80-O; and in case of a contract involving multiple or manifold activities and obligations, every consideration received therein in foreign exchange will not ipso facto fall within the ambit of Section 80-O.

Factual Background

The appellants, who had been engaged in providing services to certain foreign buyers of frozen seafood and/or marine products and had received service charges from such foreign buyers/enterprises in foreign exchange, claimed deduction under Section 80-O of the Act of 1961, as applicable for the relevant assessment year/s. In both these cases, the respective Assessing Officer/s denied such claim for deduction essentially with the finding that the services rendered by respective assessees were the ‘services rendered in India’ and not the ‘services rendered from India’ and, therefore, the service charges received by the assessees from the foreign enterprises did not qualify for deduction in view of clause (iii) of the Explanation to Section 80-O of the Act of 1961.

ITAT Decision: As per the agreements with the referred foreign enterprises, the assessee had passed on the necessary information which were utilised by the foreign enterprises concerned to make a decision either to purchase or not to purchase; and hence, it were a service rendered from India

Kerala High Court Decision: Assessees were merely marine product procuring agents for the foreign enterprises, without any claim for expertise capable of being used abroad rather than in India and hence, the services rendered by them do not qualify as the ‘services rendered from India’, for the purpose of Section 80-O of the Act of 1961.

Supreme Court Ruling

Explaining the law on the issue the Court said that any foreign exchange receipt has to be attributable to the information or service contemplated by the provision and only that part of foreign exchange receipt, which is so attributable to the activity contemplated by Section 80-O, would qualify for claiming deduction. Such enquiry is required to be made by the Assessing Officer; and for the purpose of this imperative enquiry, requisite material ought to be placed by the assessee to co-relate the foreign exchange receipt with information/service referable to Section 80-O. Evidently, such an enquiry by the Assessing Officer could be made only if concrete material is placed on record to show the requisite correlation.

On the argument that Section 80-O of the Act is essentially an incentive provision and, therefore, needs to be interpreted and applied liberally, the Court said that that deductions, exemptions, rebates et cetera are the different species of incentives extended by the IT Act.

“Section 80-O is only one of the provisions in the Act of 1961 dealing with incentive; and even as regards the incentive for earning or saving foreign exchange, there are other provisions in the Act …”

Without expanding unnecessarily on variegated provisions dealing with different incentives, the Court said that it would be suffice to notice that the proposition that incentive provisions must receive “liberal interpretation” or to say, leaning in favour of grant of relief to the assessee is not an approach countenanced by this Court.

“at and until the stage of finding out eligibility to claim deduction, the ambit and scope of the provision for the purpose of its applicability cannot be expanded or widened and remains subject to strict interpretation but, once eligibility is decided in favour of the person claiming such deduction, it could be construed liberally in regard to other requirements, which may be formal or directory in nature.”

Applying the aforementioned principles, the Court noticed that, in the case at hand, all the clauses of the agreements read together make it absolutely clear that the appellant was merely a procuring agent and it was his responsibility to ensure that proper goods are supplied in proper packing to the satisfaction of the principal.

“Even if certain information was sent by the assessee to the principals, the information did not fall in the category of such professional services or information which could justify its claim for deduction under Section 80-O of the Act.”

The Court, hence, upheld the verdict of the High Court.

[Ramnath and Co. v. Commissioner of Income Tax, 2020 SCC OnLine SC 484 , decided on 05.06.2020]

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