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Whitening schemes: failure of tax system

Dr. Ikramul Haq

The Government of Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) has finally notified its first asset/income/expenditure whitening scheme—Assets Declaration Ordinance, 2019. Promulgated as Presidential Ordinance on May 14, 2019, the scheme gives generous incentives to those who have not been paying their taxes honestly, concealing and/or understating assets/incomes/sales/expenses and cheating the State. This is, no doubt, an open admission of failure of our tax system but also surrendering of the government before the powerful segments that steal with impunity, make fun of honest taxpayers and get immunities/concessions/amnesties.  

What makes the situation more painful is the fact that the government has not simultaneously promulgated an asset-seizure legislature providing that those who fail to avail the scheme will face confiscation of untaxed assets and rigorous imprisonment. Like earlier schemes, Assets Declaration Ordinance, 2019 also lacks the necessary stick, and of course, carrot is really sweet—the rates offered are abysmally low. The important questions are: will this help in boosting the stagnant economy and increase in tax collection after the lapse of deadline of June 30, 2019 for declaration though late payments can be made till June 30, 2020 with incremental additional tax as more time is availed. Will after amnesty, importers stop under-invoicing and mis-declarations? Will there be correct reporting of sales and due payment of sales tax? Will people start declaring correct incomes and not avoid/evade income tax through under-reporting and/or non-reporting and claiming inflated expenses? Ifthese vices continue then Assets Declaration Ordinance, 2019 will be yet another exercise in futility.

It may be remembered that two amnesties of 2018—Foreign Assets (Declaration and Repatriation) Act, 2018 and Voluntary Declaration of Domestic Assets Act, 2018— through 82,889 declarations fetched only Rs. 124 billion (domestic Rs. 77 billion and foreign Rs. 47 billion), though the then Adviser to Prime Minister on Revenue, Haroon Akhtar, claimed that collection would not be less than US$ 5 billion for foreign assets alone. Many schemes were announced prior to that of 2018. The first scheme in 1958 fetched Rs 1.12 billion, followed by Rs, 920 million in 1968, Rs1.5 billion in 1976, Rs. 10 billion in 2000 and Rs. 3.16 billion in 2008. Such other schemes were also offered in 1985, 1991, 1998, 2012 and 2016, but FBR never disclosed either the amount of recovery or the names of beneficiaries.

It is high time that our economic and tax managers should realise that whitening/amnesty schemes are not be used as a measure to raise revenue as these discourage honest taxpayers and create distrust in State institutions. On the contrary, practical and workable steps should be taken to deal with the menace of tax evasion and increase revenues by adopting innovative means. Polices of appeasing tax evaders reflect defeatism, do not curb tax evasion but on the contrary, encourage it, thus widening tax gap.

After many tax amnesties till 2018, it was admitted by Federal Board of Revenue (FBR) that tax gap increased instead of decreasing. The menace of tax evasion coupled with capital flight to tax havens has deprived the country of investment and employment. The issue of tax evasion should not be seen in isolation. Pakistan is suffering due to low revenue generation resulting in huge fiscal deficit and debt burden as revenue leakages are increasing every year and looted wealth is being parked outside. It is high time that after this amnesty, the PTI government shows firmness in dealing with the issues of corruption, flight of capital, tax evasion and tax avoidance.

Historically, all tax amnesties, which were nothing but a premium for dishonesty, miserably failed. Large-scale tax evasion and the existence of a huge black economy while resulting in colossal loss of revenue to the State, tends to reduce the built-in elasticity of a fiscal system to the extent that the tax evaded income is spent on goods and services that help to generate inflationary pressures and raise prices of real property. In the context of the prevailing grave challenge to combat terrorism, together with money laundering operations, and the problem of ever-growing black money, (which according to official and independent experts is twice the size of the regular economy), there is an urgent need to launch a well-thought for asset seizure law to prevent this enormous money from becoming a lethal weapon in the hands of mafias who are now in control of economy as well as the government.

Before launching such a law it is important to identify the sources that generate black money. If such sources are not blocked, black money will keep on thriving notwithstanding the existence of stringent laws. The presence of black money is very apparent in Pakistan, but its criminal accumulation and generation is not revealed and the offenders are not punished. This baffles the minds of honest citizens. They ask, whether it is on account of lack of political will, or rampant corruption, or collusion of tax dodgers and the tax administrators at defrauding the revenue, or the political system or the ineffectiveness and defectiveness of laws, or the pervasive stubborn indifference of the citizens towards their duties?

People hooked on untaxed wealth/income for the last many decades know for certain that there would be yet another amnesty scheme giving them a chance to get their income/assets whitened by paying far less an amount than what they would have been required to pay under the regular income tax/wealth tax regime. It is a tragic situation where the entire State apparatus is subservient to those who blatantly manage to hide their incomes and wealth. It is an ugly joke with those who are paying their taxes honestly at much higher rates than those offered to tax evaders in amnesty. The ugliest face of black money emerges in the corridors of power, political as well as administrative.

The Government of PTI must be reminded that one of the worst consequences of black money and tax evasion is their pernicious effect on the general moral fabric of society. They put integrity at a discount and place a premium on vulgar and ostentatious display of wealth. This shatters the faith of the common man in the dignity of honest labour and virtuous living. It is, therefore, no exaggeration to say that ill-gotten wealth is like a cancerous growth in the country’s economy, which if not checked in time, is certain to culminate in its death. The solution is not merely ‘Assets Declaration Ordinance, 2019’ for avowed purpose to “allow the non-documented economy’s inclusion in the taxation system and serve the purpose of economic revival and growth by encouraging a tax compliant economy declaration and reporting of undisclosed assets, sales and income for fresh start of a tax compliant economy”, unless it is accompanied by a well-thought-for reform agenda and an asset-seizure legislation to confiscate all un-taxed assets at home and having provisions to seek help of international comity and organisation to bring back looted and/or untaxed money back. 


The writer, Advocate Supreme Court, is Adjunct Faculty at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS)

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