Dr. Ikramul Haq
Every year before the preparation of annual federal budget, the Federal Board of Revenue (FBR) seeks proposals from officers, trade/professional bodies, tax bars, and other stakeholders—this has become a ritual. Each year, after this futile exercise, the Finance Bill become more hopeless document—containing meaningless amendments in tax codes, imposing more obligations on citizens as withholding tax agents, with no policy shift and administrative reforms. Asking to send proposals this year by February 15, 2021 for income tax only and “preferably” in a ‘prescribed’ format shows a typically bureaucratic (babu) approach! FBR’s officials, foreign lenders and representatives of traders and industries as well as tax professionals have been suggesting many positive steps for reforms in the past, but all these went into the ‘dustbin’ as protectors of status quo want to retain complex tax system.
FBR knows that there is no dearth of research to reduce cost of doing business, simplify tax laws and procedure and accelerate growth, discussed in two recent studies of Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE), Doing Taxes Better: Simplify, Open & Grow Economy and Growth inclusive tax policy: A reform proposal. Why FBR is ignoring these with impunity. The coalition government of Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) in the centre and three provinces and Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) in Sindh need to facilitate existing taxpayers and bring the untaxed sectors/persons in the tax net. In coming weeks, in these columns, productive suggestions will be made for re-engineering the entire tax system for survival/revival of businesses affected by Covid-19, incentives for export-led growth, measures to reduce fiscal deficit and internal/external debt burden, and linkage of taxes with social services at grass root level.
Our existing tax policy is ill-directed, regressive and unfair. This was causing a dampening effect on the industrial and business growth even before Covid-19 endemic. The sole stress on meeting revenue targets, without evaluating its impact on the economy, has crippled our trade and industry, especially after following the dictates of the foreign lenders. Had the successive governments concentrated on growth, value-added industries, improving infrastructure and human resource, delivering social services, providing cheaper inputs, especially energy, innovations in agriculture, Pakistan would have been prosperous with consequential increase in revenues. It is impossible to make Pakistan self-reliant with multiple taxes and high interest rates. This has been done by successive governments and PTI is no exception.
The results of prescriptions by World Bank(WB) and International Monetary Fund (IMF) to fix the ailing economy and anti-growth tax system are discussed in detail in Tax Reforms in Pakistan: Historic & Critical View, recently published by PIDE (available free at: https://www.pide.org.pk/pdf/Books/Tax-Reforms-in-Pakistan-Historic-and-Critical-View.pdf.
The civil and military governments cannot absolve themselves from failure on fiscal front by shifting blame on WB/IMF alone. They never bothered to undertake fundamental reforms to improve productivity for higher and sustainable growth, instead kept on imposing regressive taxes as discussed in book, Tax Reforms in Pakistan: Historic & Critical View.
FBR has been creating distortions and eroding tax base through concessional statutory regulatory orders (SROs), withholding undisputed refunds, raising excessive demands and recovering the same by freezing accounts even before an order by Tax Tribunal. Sadly, even after all such negative tactics, our fiscal gap kept on widening, exposing how our bad tax policy and inefficient tax machinery can be detrimental for growth. Resultantly, Pakistan became an uncompetitive and unfavourable place for investment and growth.
There cannot be two opinions about a paradigm shift in our tax policy and administration. We need to end the VIP culture, tax-free perks and perquisites and tax expenditure of around 25% of total collection. Low-rate taxes on broad-base with effective enforcement system are suggested in Towards flat, low-rate broad and predictable taxes-revised and expanded edition (2020). It is available free at: https://primeinstitute.org/towards-flat-low-rate-broad-and-predictable-taxes/. It needs nation-wide debate and considered as “proposal” sought by FBR. This alone can help in inducing investment, growth, productivity, efficiency and job creation. The main cause of our pathetic situation in all areas of governance is existence of inefficient, out-dated and apathetic State institutions that deny with impunity the legitimate rights of people and treat them as subjects as in raj days.
Cosmetic changes in the Income Tax Ordinance 2001, Sales Tax Act 1990, Federal Excise Act, 2005 and Customs Act, 1969 will serve no purpose. In 2021 budget, the key areas must be devising a rational tax policy based on research and structural reforms in tax administration—both at federal and provincial levels. Concrete proposals are available in books and studies mentioned above. Since the last many decades, our successive governments have been extending concessions, waivers, immunities and amnesties to the dishonest and non-compliant. Thus, honest taxpayers are justifiably disillusioned. The Government, before imposing any new obligations on the citizens must restore their confidence in the system by promulgating a Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights [details available in Tax Reforms in Pakistan: Historic & Critical View and Towards flat, low-rate broad and predictable taxes-revised and expanded edition (2020)].In both the books, the assignment of taxes is also emphasised suggesting transfer of taxation power from a higher level to a lower level of government.
Assignment of taxes includes the right to levy tax, collect tax, and appropriate the proceeds justly. Thus, there can be three interpretations of assignment of taxes. Firstly, higher-level government may levy and collect a tax but handover the required proceeds to lower level governments look after citizens. Secondly, the higher-level government may levy a tax but allow the lower level governments to collect it and retain the proceeds therefrom. Finally, the higher-level government may transfer a tax to lower level governments, a situation which defines assignment of a tax in its strictest sense.
All provincial governments are violating the command of Article 140A of the Constitution by not devolving political, administrative and fiscal powers to elected local governments—see papers, Local government and taxes , Reforms we need & Taxes for welfare (Huzaima & Ikram 2018 & 2019). In the Pakistan, the exactly opposite has happened. The levy of unjust presumptive and minimum taxes along with net profit based taxation by the federal government and indirect taxes by provinces but no powers or allocations of funds to the elected local governments for providing education, health, housing, transport and all civic amenities at grass root level. This is denial of the fundamental rights of the people, who are heavily taxed.
There is an urgent need in Pakistan to reconsider equitable distribution of fiscal and taxing powers among federation, provinces and local governments. True provincial autonomy can only be guaranteed if assignment of taxes principle is followed in letter and spirit. Establishment of local governments is a constitutional obligation [Article 140A] to dislodge the colonial-style district management and ensure devolution of powers to the elected representatives of the citizens. The provincial and federal governments have failed to implement Article 140A. Let the provinces have exclusive right over their resources and finances and they should transfer funds to local governments so that all public services mentioned above can be guaranteed at grass root level.
The writer, Advocate Supreme Court, is member of Adjunct Faculty at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS).