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Corona-crisis: A wake-up call?

Huzaima Bukhari

“Death is the final wake-up call”—Douglas Horton

Specialized training of income tax for probationary officers who qualified the Civil Services Competitive Examination of 1983, took place during 1985 and 1986.  Yours faithfully was one of them. This is the era when the minimum amount of income of an individual subjected to income tax was only Rs. 12,000 and the rate of tax ranged between 15% on the lowest side to 60% on the highest. Rate of tax for companies was more stringent. Banking companies 66%, companies other than public companies 55% and public companies 44%. When these high rates were brought into question, among other reasons given by our mentors were to prevent those earning immense income from becoming more powerful than the government on the strength of their money and also to maintain an equitable balance of wealth. It may be remembered that at that time, in addition to income tax, persons also had to pay wealth tax under the Wealth Tax Act, 1963 that was later repealed in 2003.

The objective here is not to discuss the income tax law but to draw attention towards an important aspect of government policy that should be to keep the rich-poor divide to its minimum possible level. During the last 35 years income inequalities in Pakistan have been increasing at a rapid pace that have blurred the lower middle class that earlier occupied the space between upper middle class and population living on and below poverty line. This implies that in Pakistan there are people who are either very rich or very poor and this is the present horrifying picture that has emerged in the event of the ongoing corona virus crisis.

This is also a wake-up call not only for the federal and provincial governments but even the people in general.

In a country like Pakistan, that may never have boasted of rubbing shoulders with the mighty nations of the world, until some time back no one, no matter how poor, slept on a hungry stomach. One way or the other, food was accessible to all. There was poverty, no doubt, but hunger was unknown. While the streets of Bombay in neighbouring India were and still are famous for the homeless sleepers, roads of cities like Karachi, Lahore and Rawalpindi did not provide shelter to rural immigrants who could always find some form of accommodation. Alas! This somewhat agreeable state of affairs gradually began to decline as the rich-poor divide started to widen, the moment leaderships sowed seeds of disintegration by creating divisions in the name of ethnicity and religious ideologies—in simpler terms, the society was being led towards dehumanization.

The once existing middle class—upholding some cultural and moral values, was fearful of social stigmas, tried to instill some sensibility in its younger generation, was full of empathy for the downtrodden, that openly shunned corruption staying away from the depraved; that rigidly guarded its ethical standards—was hurled in the backdrop of materialism. Instead of building the character of the nation, educating masses, providing universal entitlements, holding the corrupt and incompetent accountable, focusing on uplifting the poor to rescue them from further misery by raising their living standards, governments were being headed by vested interests that were more concerned with perpetuity of their own rule by their anti-people and anti-growth policies and the last nail in the coffin of the middle class proved to be the country’s retrograde tax system.    

Since 1991, successive governments are guilty of increasing income and wealth inequalities by converting progressive taxes, with the highest possible incidence on the ultra rich to highly regressive ones responsible for marginalizing the middle class in a way that the majority was either pushed towards poverty line while a good many jumped on the bandwagon of gold seekers minting money at the expense of its strictly cherished moral values.

Consequently, wretchedness, under-nourishment, starvation, deprivation, ill-health, lack of proper education, scarcity of resources, improper housing, deplorable sanitation conditions have all added to the gulf that separates the haves and the have-nots.  The prevailing Corona crisis has mercifully ripped apart that mask of fake material gains in terms of concrete structures, imported brands, ugly display of riches, most prominent in the urban centres exposing harsh realities as a result of extremely apathetic and indifferent governments laying foundations for a possible headway to the likes of the French Revolution (1789-1799). Governments should dread the day when masses turn around to seek revenge from the plunderers of their rights because as Friedrich Neitzche pointed out: “Madness is rare in individuals, but in groups, states, and societies, it’s the norm.”

Too much material and spiritual damage has already been sustained by an overwhelming size of the population. The positive sides of the Corona virus are these realizations that health takes precedence over wealth; life is too fragile to waste in hording assets that lose their value for one inflicted with this fatal disease; that proper hospitals, parks and schools are more beneficial than shopping malls and motorways within city precincts; that education and health should not be businesses; that it is more important to incentivize medium enterprises rather than giving amnesty upon amnesty to the super-rich; that hunger and starvation cannot be eliminated with limited distribution of free food but by empowering people with skills; that equity does not reflect in sprawling bungalows but in modest living. 

This is a wake-up call for the people as well. Heavy reliance on others rather than improving own capacity, brooding in self-pity instead of improving themselves, indulging in petty domestic or office politics as against reinforcing relationships, copying the lifestyle of wealthy without taking cognizance of own resources, trying to become rich overnight without going through the mill, resorting to bribery, dishonesty and unethical practices, are some of the things that require rethinking. Life is never always tragic. Tragedy strikes on those who waste it on trivialities and repent only when it is too late.

Once the Corona-crisis is over, hopefully soon, both the government and the people will have to cogitate their policies and attitude respectively. Ragamuffins are always shameless having no self-respect and willing to go from door to door to seek alms but there is a class that cherishes its self-esteem preferring to die rather than beg. People belonging to this group, now a minority, are the greatest sufferers who get caught up between their own misery and self-worth. They are the ones who governments as well as philanthropists should pay special attention to. One sincerely hopes that sanity prevails and henceforth efforts are directed towards improving the quality of the populace—something of great value—that has continuously been ignored.


The writer, lawyer and author, is an Adjunct Faculty at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS)

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