[CGST Act] Kar HC directs to consider refund application by Swiggy for the amount paid allegedly under duress and coercion during investigation

Karnataka High Court: S. Sunil Dutt Yadav J. disposed off the petition and reinstated an observation “If any money is due to the Government, the Government should take steps but not take extra steps or maneuver…”

Factual Background

The facts of the case are such that the petitioner operates an e commerce platform under the name ‘Swiggy’ and is registered under the Central Goods and Services tax Act, 2017. Due to spike in food orders during holidays and festive season, third party service providers i.e. Greenfich in the present case, are engaged who charge consideration for the same along with GST which is paid by the petitioner as Input Tax Credit. An investigation was conducted by the respondent Department on the ground that Greenfich was a non existent entity and ITC availed are fraudulent. The petitioner alleged that a sum of Rs. 27 crores was illegally collected from the petitioner during the investigation proceedings under threat of arrest and coercion. Hence the instant petition was filed seeking a writ of mandamus directing the respondents to refund the amount illegally collected.

 Submissions

Counsel for the petitioners Mr. Lakshmikumaran and Mr. Ravi Raghavan submitted that payment has been collected under duress and coercion which is clear from a letter presented before the Court dated 30-11-2019. It was further submitted that the manner in which the investigation was conducted and payments were made reflects an unfair and arbitrary treatment of a bonafide tax payer as petitioner’s credibility as tax payer could never have been doubt by presenting documents for the same.

Counsel for the respondents Mr. M B Naragund and Mr. Amit Despande submitted that according to letter dated 30-11-2019 it is clear that the payments were made as a goodwill gesture and are to be construed as payment of tax in furtherance of self ascertainment as contemplated under section 74(5) of the CGST Act. It was further submitted that the petitioner has exercised its statutory right of refund and is bound to follow the procedure to its logical end by invoking the remedies available under the statutory scheme of the Act, thus invoking writ jurisdiction is impermissible.

Observations

The Court observed that the mere fact that application has been made for refund does not in anyway take away the right of the petitioner to seek for appropriate direction in the present proceedings, as the application for refund has merely been deferred and in effect no decision is taken, even otherwise, the question of alternate remedy is of no significance, when the eventual direction in the present writ is only for consideration of the refund application.

The Court further observed that the letter dated 30-11-2019 is clear and unambiguous wherein it is stated that the amount is made in furtherance of their goodwill conduct and bonafide during the pendency of the inspection proceedings and seeking necessary refund should not be regarded as an admission of liability.

The Court observed that the scheme of self ascertainment as contained in sub sections (5) (6) (7) (8) of Section 74 of CGST Act does not call for making of payment and continuance of investigation. “Upon payment of tax after collection of the same with penalty, if the same is accepted even before the issuance of notice under Section 74 (1) during investigation, there ends the matter and there is nothing further to be proceeded with.”

The Court observed that while considering the time at which the amount was deposited and the date of the deposit, it would indicate that amounts were paid during times when there was no legal obligation to make payment. It was further observed that the matter regarding wrongful availment of input tax credit was pending investigation and the Department acted in undue haste to ensure that taxes are paid during the process of investigation instead of allowing the investigation to proceed and conclude in accordance with law.

The Court relied on judgment Dabur India Limited v. State of Uttar Pradesh, (1990) 4 SCC 113 and observed that This is unfortunate. We would not like to hear from a litigant in this country that the Government is coercing citizens of this country to make payment of duties which the litigant is contending not to be leviable. Government, of course, is entitled to enforce payment and for that purpose to take all legal steps but the Government, Central or State, cannot be permitted to play dirty games with the citizens of this country to coerce them in making payments which the citizens were not legally obliged to make.”

The Court further observed that it does not desire to place any sort of fetter on the power of investigation and it would be unwise to impose any kind of time limit, for it is the authority which should be permitted to complete its investigation in a manner as may be desired by it as is permissible.

The Court thus held “the consideration of right of refund in the present factual matrix would be independent of the process of investigation and two cannot be linked together”

“Accordingly refund applications are to be considered and suitable orders be passed within a period of four weeks from the date of the release of the order.

[Bundl Technologies Private Limited v. Union of India, 2021 SCC OnLine Kar 14702, decided on 14-09-2021]


Arunima Bose, Editorial Assistant has reported this brief.

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