“Administration of justice, is the principle of order in political society”—Aristotle
Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI) came to power after a strenuous struggle in which the paramount slogan was ‘dispensation of justice’ (the basis for name of the party) but on eventually gaining power, this appears to have disappeared into oblivion. There is no denying the fact that the present government inherited a rotten system of government with umpteen issues, among which a faltering economy tops the list. There can be no qualms about the multiple recalcitrant problems looking into the eyes of the members of parliament but these are insufficient arguments to let go of the election motto of establishing justice for one and all. Justice is not just what a court is supposed to do as injustice is removing something from its rightful place. On taking oath, their most important step should have been to take tenacious measures for giving justice to the poor and downtrodden as well as bring to justice ANY iota of cruelty occurring in ANY public sector enterprises. This would have immediately won them the much needed public trust after which any sacrifice demanded from the people would have been met with willingness. Many nations have emerged with a stronger vigor from the ashes of destruction but alas, we still seem to be lost in the dust of those ashes.
It is no understatement that without ample money, the dream of achieving justice for all cannot be made a reality but not at the cost of actual inequity in collection of revenue. The Federal Board of Revenue (FBR) along with provincial revenue authorities is responsible for collecting various taxes falling in their respective jurisdiction. On the other hand, duty of the public is to engage in economic activities through employment, businesses, agriculture, import/export, industry etc. to generate substantial gross domestic product (GDP) and consequently raise sufficient revenue for the government to utilize for administration, development of infrastructure, regulations and the general welfare of the people. If the roles got switched for whatever reason, the only thing that could be expected is injustice in the form of chaos but then this is what exactly has been happening over the last many decades. Those who should be raising the GDP have been distracted from their objectives by incompetent revenue authorities, responsible for raising cost of doing business because of added duties of collecting revenue on their behalf. There are a number of companies that started off with a couple of accountants who could easily manage their tax affairs but have ended up hiring a platoon who are doing work for different authorities but are paid by the companies.
In its eagerness to extort taxes from a predominantly non-complying public, the then government introduced the concept of filers and non-filers in 2014 that envisaged that from those members of the public whose name does not appear in the Active Taxpayers’ List (ATL), a relatively higher rate of tax would be applied at the time of deduction/collection at source. ATL is totally under the control of FBR which means that unless it inserts names of the filers, even a regular return filer would be considered inactive. This could be because of delayed up-dating of the list as has happened in some cases but the taxpayer ends up getting punished for somebody else’s fault—again a case of injustice. If that is not enough there are more bizarre examples.
Under the tax laws, certain persons are not required to file returns of income for one or more reasons. Their income is below taxable limits, as in the case of majority of the people in Pakistan; their income is exempt from chargeability; they have wound up their businesses; they are residing outside the country and so are not required to submit their income statements and the irony is that these are genuine non-filers. If the Constitution of the country explicitly says that a person will not be made to do what the law does not require him to do, then on the touchstone of this command, extracting tax in such instances is totally unjust. Consequently, it was expected, that the new PTI government would provide a source of relief but obviously it fell in the trap of injustice that was craftily laid out for it.
We are all the time harping the tune of upholding the sacred constitution of the country but simultaneously we are audaciously defying its directives and foolishly expecting the public to acquiesce with obeying all kinds of ridiculous pieces of legislation that testify to nothing more than incompetence of the executive in performing their own functions. Had the government taken bolder measures and forced these authorities to show efficiency by introducing short term solutions to chronic problems of recovery of arrears, clearance of backlog of hundreds of thousands of cases pending in various law forums, penning legislation to confiscate assets held under anonymous names (benami), making provisional assessments to justify tax demands and recovering them properly; coaxed the business houses to pay up in return for immunity from having to face cumbersome audits, the country would have successfully overcome its budget deficit. Instead, the PTI coalition just blindly followed the usual rut, without ever thinking of bringing about innovations, with the same morbid structure forcing the country to reel under pressure from donors.
What happens in the aftermath is anybody’s wild imagination but right now the sufferers are all those innocent non-filers who are being blatantly deprived of their hard-earned incomes by ruthless shenanigans of lop-sided and unjust taxing statutes that have left nothing but a dissatisfied-to-the-core public, illegally enriched tax cheats, gleeful vested-interest groups, an economy that is and is not, a government that is running around in vicious circles in trying to make ends meet, bloated deficits and a bureaucracy that is reluctant to give up status quo—all because the resolve to establish justice had somehow leaked out of the governing party’s bloodline giving way to behavior and attitude, typical of the earlier governments that were more preoccupied in fooling the people with cooked-up performance figures, hoodwinking donors in believing artificial growth rates and tax-to-GDP ratios, increasing prices of essential commodities to an extent that has become totally unbearable not only for the poorest of the poor but also those who are living from hand to mouth.
The prevailing state of affairs is causing disillusionment to those patriotic Pakistanis who have been patiently tolerating all kinds of governmental maladministration in the hope that sooner or later this disordered phase would pass. However, with the anticipated increase in taxes, POL and commodity prices in the forth-coming budget, there are great chances that the country will have to bear flight of capital and departure of potential doers. This can be avoided if the government rekindles its dying motto of establishing justice at all levels of governance and especially for the starving, hapless population for whom the government’s pathos is the only redeeming factor after God.
The writer, lawyer and author, is an Adjunct Faculty at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS)