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Maintenance of a fixed place of business which is of a preparatory or auxiliary character in the tra


The Honorable Supreme Court decided an appeal by the Department revisits the question as to the taxability of income attributable to a “permanent establishment” set up in a fixed place in India, arising from the ‘Agreement for avoidance of double taxation of income and the prevention of fiscal evasion’ with the Republic of Korea (“DTAA”).

ONGC Awarded a “turnkey” contract to a consortium comprising of the Respondent/Assessee, i.e. Samsung Heavy Industries Co. Ltd. (a Company incorporated in South Korea), and Larsen & Toubro Limited, being a contract for carrying out the “Work”, inter alia, of surveys, design, engineering, procurement, fabrication, installation and modification at existing facilities, and start-up and commissioning of entire facilities covered under the ‘Vasai East Development Project’

On 24.05.2006, the Assessee set up a Project Office in Mumbai, India, which, as per the Assessee, was to act as “a communication channel” between the Assessee and ONGC in respect of the Project. Pre-engineering, survey, engineering, procurement and fabrication activities which took place abroad, all took place in the year 2006. Commencing from November, 2007, these platforms were then brought outside Mumbai to be installed at the Vasai East Development Project. The Project was to be completed by 26.07.2009. With regard to Assessment Year 2007-2008, the Assessee filed a Return of Income on 21.08.2007 showing nil profit, as a loss of INR 23.5 lacs had allegedly been incurred in relation to the activities carried out by it in India.

On 29.08.2008, a show-cause notice was issued to the Assessee by the Income Tax authorities requiring it to show cause as to why the Return of Income had been filed only at nil, which was replied to in detail by the Assessee on 02.02.2009. Being dissatisfied with the reply, a draft Assessment Order was then passed on 31.12.2009 (“Draft Order”) by the Assistant Director of Income Tax International Transactions at Dehradun (“Assessing Officer”). This Draft Order went into the terms of the agreement in great detail, and concluded that the Project in question is a single indivisible “turnkey” project, whereby ONGC was to take over a project that is completed only in India. Resultantly, profits arising from the successful commissioning of the Project would also arise only in India.

The dispute resolution panel held “The assessee has not contested the existence of the Project office in India but it has only contested that the project was used merely for preparatory and auxiliary activities. This submission of the assessee does not hold merit because if it wanted to perform only preparatory and auxiliary activities then it could have opened a liaison office. The opening of a project office clearly shows that the assessee was doing something more than what would have been done through liaison office.” Subsequently ITAT confirmed the decision of the Assessing officer and the Dispute Resolution Panel that the contract was indivisible.

The High Court held that the question as to whether the Project Office opened at Mumbai cannot be said to be a “permanent establishment” within the meaning of Article 5 of the DTAA would be of no consequence. The High Court then held that there was no finding that 25% of the gross revenue of the Assessee outside India was attributable to the business carried out by the Project Office of the Assessee. According to the High Court, neither the Assessing Officer nor the ITAT made any effort to bring on record any evidence to justify this figure. An appeal was preferred by the department.

The bench consisting of Justice R.F. Nariman, Justice Navin Sinha, Justice B.R. Gavai held as follow:

“A reading of the aforesaid judgments makes it clear that when it comes to “fixed place” permanent establishments under double taxation avoidance treaties, the condition precedent for applicability of Article 5(1) of the double taxation treaty and the ascertainment of a “permanent establishment” is that it should be an establishment “through which the business of an enterprise” is wholly or partly carried on. Further, the profits of the foreign enterprise are taxable only where the said enterprise carries on its core business through a permanent establishment. What is equally clear is that the maintenance of a fixed place of business which is of a preparatory or auxiliary character in the trade or business of the enterprise would not be considered to be a permanent establishment under Article 5. Also, it is only so much of the profits of the enterprise that may be taxed in the other State as is attributable to that permanent establishment.”

The Honorable court held as “Though it was pointed out to the ITAT that there were only two persons working in the Mumbai office, neither of whom was qualified to perform any core activity of the Assessee, the ITAT chose to ignore the same. This being the case, it is clear, therefore, that no permanent establishment has been set up within the meaning of Article 5(1) of the DTAA, as the Mumbai Project Office cannot be said to be a fixed place of business through which the core business of the Assessee was wholly or partly carried on. Also, as correctly argued by Shri Ganesh, the Mumbai Project Office, on the facts of the present case, would fall within Article 5(4)(e) of the DTAA, inasmuch as the office is solely an auxiliary office, meant to act as a liaison office between the Assessee and ONGC.

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