Tax liability of a power generator (which also manufactures sugar) supplying electricity to a distributor, whether a Question of law or of fact? Supreme Court clarifies

Supreme Court: The 3-Judge Bench comprising of Dr Dhananjaya Y Chandrachud*, Vikram Nath and BV Nagarathna, JJ., has held that the question whether tax can be levied on the supply of electricity by a power generator (which also manufactures sugar) supplying electricity to a distributor is a question of law and existence of alternate remedy would not bar the High Court from entertaining the same. The Bench expressed,

“The issues raised by the appellant were questions of law which required, upon a comprehensive reading of the Bihar Electricity Act, a determination of whether tax can be levied on the supply of electricity by a power generator (which also manufactures sugar) supplying electricity to a distributor…”

The crux of the case was that the Patna High Court had declined to entertain writ petition challenging the validity of electricity duty and penalty imposed on the electricity supplied to Bihar State Electricity Board (BSEB) on the ground that the dispute between the parties was factual in nature and was suitable for adjudication in terms of the statutory remedy provided in the Bihar Electricity Duty Act 19481.

Factual Developments

The appellant, a sugar mill company was engaged in the business of manufacture and sale of white crystal sugar. The waste of sugarcane (bagasse) was used for the production of electricity for its own consumption by the appellant and the surplus energy was supplied to BSEB.

In pursuance of its power under Section 3(1) of the Act, the State had issued a notification dated 21-10-2002 which stipulated that the rate of duty applicable on the consumption or sale of electricity would be fixed at six per cent of the value of energy consumed or sold for any other purposes other than irrigation which was later amended on 04-03-2005 which provided that the rate of duty to be levied on consumption of electrical energy generated by captive power plants would be six per cent of the  value of energy, i.e. energy tariff as fixed by the BSEB. Noticeably on 14-01-2011 another notification was issued by the State, granting a blanket exemption from payment of electricity duty on electricity generated by captive plants for self-consumption.

In the above backdrop, the appellant had challenged the notifications dated 21-10-2002, which was struck down by the High Court on the ground that there were no guidelines in the statute or the notifications for construing the expression ‘value of energy’. Subsequently, the State amended the Act through the Bihar Finance Act 2012 with retrospective effect from 17-10-2002 for defining the term ‘value of energy’.

Once again, the appellant challenged the amendment in the High Court, however, while the petition was pending the State issued a notice to the appellant for its failure to file returns under Section 6B (1) of the Act, concealment of the sale of electricity of approximately Rs 56 crores and for raising a demand of electricity duty and penalty of about Rs 67 crores.

Grievance raised by the Appellant

On behalf of the appellant, the following submissions had been made to substantiate the claim that no tax can be levied on the supply of electricity by the appellant to BSEB for the following reasons:

  1. Under Section 3 of the Act, tax was levied on the ‘value of energy’ and Section 2(ee) only brought the sale to a consumer within the ambit of the phrase ‘value of energy’;
  2. BSEB was a ‘licensee’ and not a ‘consumer’ in view of the definition of ‘licensee’ provided under Section 2(d) of the Act; and the term ‘value of energy’ used in Section 3 for the levy of tax was not applicable to BSEB because the definition of ‘consumer’ excluded a licensee, Section 2 (b) states:

“‘Consumer’ means any person who is supplied with energy but does not include either a licensee or the distributing licensee…”

  1. BSEB was already paying electricity duty for the electricity sold by it to consumers, including the electricity supplied by the company to the Board. The levy of tax on the electricity supplied by the company would thus amount to double taxation;
  2. Even if it was conceded that the State had power to levy tax on the supply of electricity by the generator to the licensee, the Government had not exercised its power, since under Section 3, a notification must be issued for specifying the rate of charge. The notification issued on 21-10-2002 was only providing the rate of duty on ‘consumption or sale of electricity’.
  3. Since the power exercised by the State under Section 3 of the Act to levy electricity duty on sale of electricity by the appellant to BSEB was a jurisdictional issue, the rule of alternate remedy would not apply;

Analysis

In a similarly placed case, which was initially tagged with the instant petition but was later de-tagged, National Thermal Power Corporation Ltd. (NTPC) was supplying electricity exclusively to the Electricity Boards, which had challenged the same issue before the Court, the High Court had held that electricity duty could not be imposed under Section 3 (1) of the Act on a power generation company supplying electricity to a licensee like the Electricity Board, concluding that it was beyond the legislative competence of the State to impose a tax on the sale of electricity which was not a sale for consumption. Moreover, the High Court observed that in terms of the provisions of the Bihar Electricity Act, a power generation company is liable to pay duty only if it is selling electricity to the consumer, as defined in the legislation.

Noticeably, the High Court by its impugned order had declined to entertain the writ petition on two counts: (i) the appellant had an alternate statutory remedy under Section 9A of the Act; and (ii) the dispute involved questions of fact which are not amenable to the writ jurisdiction of the High Court. The Bench observed that it was not the case of the appellant that the respondents had miscalculated the duty and penalty imposed on it. The appellant contended that the State Government did not have power to levy tax on its sale of electricity to BSEB. Thus, the plea stroke at the exercise of jurisdiction by the Government; accordingly, the Bench held,

“The High Court can exercise its writ jurisdiction if the order of the authority is challenged for want of authority and jurisdiction, which is a pure question of law.”

Relying on the decision in Sree Meenakshi Mills Ltd. v CIT, 1956 SCR 691, wherein a three judge Bench had explained succinctly the tests for the identification of questions of fact, questions of law and mixed questions of law and facts, the Bench stated that, “the test that is to be applied for the determination of a question of law is whether the rights of the parties before the court can be determined without reference to the factual scenario.”

Verdict

Hence, the Bench held that the issues raised by the appellant were questions of law which required, upon a comprehensive reading of the Bihar Electricity Act, a determination of whether tax can be levied on the supply of electricity by a power generator (which also manufactures sugar) supplying electricity to a distributor; and whether the State had the legislative competence to levy duty on the sale of electricity to an intermediary distributor.

Resultantly, the Bench was of the view that the High Court made an error in declining to entertain the writ petition and it would be appropriate to restore the proceedings back to the High Court for a fresh disposal. Accordingly, the appeal was allowed and the impugned judgment was set aside.

[M/s Magadh Sugar & Energy Ltd. v. State of Bihar, 2021 SCC OnLine SC 801, decided on 24-09-2021]

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Kamini Sharma, Editorial Assistant has put this report together

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Appearance by:

For the Appellant: Advocate SK Bagaria

For the State of Bihar: Sr. Advocate Saket Singh


*Judgment by: Justice Dr Dhananjaya Y Chandrachud

Know Thy Judge| Justice Dr. DY Chandrachud

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