Paying Taxes: A Patriotic Duty

Distractions come and go, but one thing is constant: The need to seriously address the nation’s economy. It’s easy to blame feudal politicians and they very rich for state of the economy. But as 700,000 individuals are opening their notifications from FBR instructing them to start paying taxes, we should be asking, “what of the other 99.7 per cent of citizens?”

The economy is a constant source of political battles, and as we approach the 2013 elections it will become even more so. Increased petrol prices, the fear of inflation, debt financing, and the price of food are constants in the political discourse. As the party currently in power, PPP takes a lot of complaints for the state of the struggling economy. But even PPP critics recognize that the problem is one that is not so easily solved as simply as replacing the present leaders.

Dr Pervez Tahir, former chief economist of the Planning Commission, criticises the government’s lack of focus on the economy, “despite [PPP’s] edge over the other parties in its concern for real economic issues”. Dr Maleeha Lodhi, also a regular critic of the present government, admits that the government is probably doing the best that it can given the political circumstances.

The new taxes have been imposed through presidential ordinances while the removal of the GST exemptions has been effected through SROs (statutory regulatory orders). This may have been the only course available to the government after the collapse of its talks with the PML-N and resistance from its coalition partners.

The good news is that many economic indicators are showing positive signs. Services exports surged almost 56 per cent since seven months, recording $3.424 Billions during July-January period, and foreign exchange reserves reached an all time high of $17.38 Billions.

The bad news is that economic growth is being held back by a culture of tax evasion in the country. Huzaima Bukhari and Dr Ikramul Haq suggest that the solution is to follow the model of Nigeria and Philippines and institute forced repatriation of funds from countries like Switzerland where money is being hidden. While repatriation of hidden funds is not a bad idea, it’s not enough. This would only provide a temporary economic boost and not change the regular practise.

The fact is that sustainable solutions to the economic situation require sacrifice and a shift in the popular thinking. We need to change the culture of tax evasion in the country.

The culture of tax evasion is not unique to Pakistan. The same problem exists in many developing countries including Bangladesh where tax-GDP ratio is only 9 per cent. And, despite the popularity of blaming tax evasion on the rich, tax evasion is a problem that is also widespread in the middle class. Again, this is not unique to Pakistan, but has been found in India also.

The point is not that the rich should not have to pay their fair share of taxes, but that we all should. No more excuses.

FBR collected Rs1 Trillino in the first three quarters of Fiscal Year 2011 – a 12.8 per cent increase since one year. This is still below targets, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Now, as the nation faces petrol price hikes, we need to be willing to face the music and pay our fair share. Certainly the price hikes will be felt, but we must examine it in context of the greater economy and not the immediate circumstance. Consider the statement of PM Gilani today.

On Friday Gilani told lawmakers the latest price increase was necessary because the government could not control rises on the international market.

“We have given 35 billion rupees (411 million dollars) subsidy on petroleum prices so far and our taxes on petroleum products are the lowest in the world,” Gilani said.

He urged the public to conserve electricity, gas and petrol “in the national interest.”

I have written before that loosing our country from the conditionalities and obligations that come with foreign aid requires “making the sometimes uncomfortable decisions required to solve” the nation’s problems. We can strengthen our nation and our security not by blaming others for our problems, but by investing in ourselves. There is a saying that “taxes are what we pay to live in a civilized society”. If we want to see Pakistan rise to its potential, we should not avoid paying taxes, but pay them willingly. That is the true sign of patriotism. Of course, there’s another saying which is “you get what you pay for”. Keep that in mind the next time you’re complaining.

Whose Side Are You On?

This is a question that I get asked from time to time, usually when someone takes offense at my daring to take a point of view that goes against the Ghairat Brigade talking points. It’s a cheap trick – when you have no other answer, accuse someone’s patriotism. This question couldn’t help but come to mind again after the numbness following yesterday’s assassination wore off. Reading the reactions of people who I respect, people like Ahsan Butt who is despairing, and MSS at Cafe Pyala who is so angry, I realized that this question is often misused, but sometimes it is not entirely inappropriate.

In his anger at the killing of Shahbaz Bhatti Shaheed, MSS lashes out at the people whose own inactions and careful hedging on the issue of extremism clear the way for the violence, hatred, and intolerance.

I write that I condemn the spineless, self-preserving hedging about of the spineless, self-preserving f—wits swarming TV and newsprint. I write that I condemn the willful, witless intolerance seemingly decent people practice through their silence during bloodthirsty sermons delivered in mosques and drawing rooms. I write that I condemn those whose reaction to events like this is a diminishing of their personal and political engagement with the world around them rather than an expansion. I write that I condemn every parent, grandparent or caregiver who lets strangers dictate their child’s moral code.

Ahsan Butt independently makes the same complaint.

Please don’t give me any nonsense about allowing the political system to work, or letting institutions develop, or other claptrap. These are our institutions at work. We need to understand this. Our military spawned these nuts. Our society tolerates them. Our judiciary celebrates them. Our media excuses them. And our political parties are either beholden to extremist forces, or so intimidated and pusillanimous because of them, that they may as well be the same thing. When Rehman Malik says things like “I will shoot a blasphemer myself” and Babar Awan says things like “There will be no change to the blasphemy law” and the Gilani government doesn’t even provide a bullet proof car to its targeted ministers and also withdraws support from Sherry Rehman at a crucial time, that is our political institutions at work. And mind you, this is the “liberal, secular” PPP. Forget the Army or the ISI or the PML(N).

Both blogs will be accused of pessimism, both will be accused of despairing when we need a positive outlook. This is the line I would have taken in the past, too. But today I can’t help but think that they have a point.

MSS points also to a Dawn story that should be shocking to anyone who respects democracy and the rule of law, not to mention basic human decency.

THREE REMAIN SEATED: But many in the house and the galleries were surprised to see three bearded members of the opposition Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam of Maulana Fazlur Rehman remaining seated in their chairs when the rest of lawmakers stood up to observe two minutes’ silence for Mr Bhatti.

There was no immediate explanation what motivated the JUI back-benchers, in the absence of their party leader, to violate a parliamentary etiquette, and a directive given by the chair, in agreement with some voices raised in the house, that members stand up to pay a silent tribute to their assassinated colleague.

Fazlur Rehman should be pressed to answer for his actions. Why did he choose to show such contempt and disrespect for the murdered Minister? This is not a question of blasphemy law, it is a question of BASIC HUMAN DECENCY. Fazlur’s action, consciously chosen, can be easily interpreted as sympathy for those who murder men in the streets when they disagree with their opinions. Is this what his action meant? Why does he not come clean and admit it?

What about Munawar Hasan, Abul Khair Muhammad Zubair, Sahibzada Fazal Kareem, and Maulana Ameer Hamza? Their immediate response is to blame CIA, Black Water, ‘Foreign Hand’ and all the other bogeys that provide cover for and distract attention from the jihadi gunmen who have already admitted guilt.

The question, ‘Whose side are you on?’ is typically used to accuse people’s patriotism by suggesting that they’re tools of the CIA, the US, or the West. But maybe it’s not the question but the assumption that is incorrect. We should be asking not whether people are loyal to Pakistan or the US, but whether people are loyal to Pakistan or the jihadis. There is no ‘good Taliban’ and ‘bad Taliban’. This lie must be stopped. Speaking against bogey men like Raymond Davis is cheap. It’s easy. If you are a real patriot, speak against TTP. Speak against LeT. Speak against SSP.

Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto was a real patriot, and her blood has watered the soil of the country that she was loyal to. Salmaan Taseer Shaheed was a real patriot, and his blood has watered the soil of the country he was loyal to. Shahbaz Bhatti Shaheed was a real patriot, and his blood has watered the soil of the country that he was loyal to.

What about you? Are you on the side of Pakistan or of jihadis? Will you speak out against the real enemies of Pakistan? Or are you going to hide in your chair like Fazlur Rehman?

Fazlur Rehman

The question here is not meant to accuse anyone. It is meant as a serious question. Lets get it all out in the open, please. I am only asking because I truly want to know. Every day I am spilling out my own position. I am very open about it and yet it seems nobody can hear me.

But you…your silence is deafening.