Inefficiencies failing the Tax Apparatus in Pakistan

The following write-up was published in the Oct-Dec 2017 Quarterly Edition of “Policy Insights”, the largest accountancy body ACCA’s regional publication covering MENASA

Link: ACCA’s Policy Insights’ Published Link

Link: Main Page

Inefficiencies failing the Tax Apparatus in Pakistan

(by failing the genuine Taxpayers)

Federal Board of Revenue (FBR) is a semi-autonomous federal institution that is responsible for auditing, enforcing and collecting revenue for the government of Pakistan. It’s one of the most critical components of the revenue collection apparatus in Pakistan. As such it is supposed to be the pinnacle of professionalism, discipline and support to tax payers.

During the last budgetary season, Chairman FBR invited this writer, while representing ACCA (UK) and LTBA at a historic pre-budget seminar that was organized with the collaboration of ICAP, ICMAP, ACCA, LTBA, PTBA, LCCI and several other Tax Bars, to send him proposals about the issues in and reforms for FBR. Below is a brief overview from that perspective.

Currently there are approximately 1,210,000 active income tax return filers as per the FBR directory issued in August 2017, out of a population of roughly 218 million in Pakistan. This is a meager 0.55% of the total population. A huge proportion of these filers, file NIL returns is another topic. On the other hand every Pakistani is paying indirect taxes on whatever they consume. The evident lack of trust of the taxpayers on the system and the resulting regressive taxation policies are a big hindrance in the attainment of an optimal taxation system. We’ve often discussed the problems with the taxation policies in Pakistan and proposed practical solutions. Frankly speaking there is only so much FBR can do in this regard since the policies are often driven by the IMF, World Bank and/or the political interests in the country. However the areas where FBR can and should play a very effective role are not in the best of states either.

Considering the tiny tax base it was only natural for FBR to attempt to broaden it. However the way they went about it, has been unprofessional to say the least while messing up a good endeavor big time. Notices claiming no existing tax registration based on “economic activities”, usually citing vehicle purchases were sent out to masses. Sounds positive? Hang on, what if it’s shared with you that many of those receiving these notices were not only tax payers already registered but paying millions in Income Taxes annually? This exemplifies a total lack of coordination within the systems and functions of FBR, which is unfortunately becoming a norm of late. Missing out on the records already held by FBR simply reinforces the misconceptions amongst the tax payers that FBR is out to bother already registered tax payers instead of acting as a facilitator and initiating genuine drives to catch tax evaders.

What’s tragic is that while on one hand such steps are undertaken citing the need to broaden the tax base but on the other hand proposals with huge potential to broaden the tax base such as bringing agricultural income and other exempt sections within the tax net as well as converting the CNIC into National Tax Numbers (NTN) and Sales Tax Registration Numbers (STRN) for broadening the tax base have been falling on deaf ears for almost a decade now.

To underline the vast difference in the workings of FBR and similar bodies in developed countries, a personal experience is hereby shared with the readers to illustrate the significant gulf between the international standards and the ones practiced in our beloved country. While working in UK, I needed to change my tax code. For ease of understanding you can say it was like claiming a tax refund and I was not even a British national. It took me one phone call to UK’s HMRC (Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs) during my office lunch hour to get it done by the end of the lunch. Yes, just in less than an hour. Now compare it to the experience of genuine tax-payers in Pakistan who are ridiculed and abused for even minor genuine tax affairs. Presumptive and advance taxes are collected but when it is time to issue refunds in line with the law, actual due refunds are held for months and even years despite completion of all legalities and verification. What is worst is that in most cases the FBR officials verbally accept the cases as genuine but claim that due to the pressure to meet revenue collection targets they are unable to follow the law and deliver the tax payer their due right.

The problem manifests from the nepotism and non-professional attitudes of some officers who treat tax-payers with utmost contempt instead of the dignity they deserve. Un-realistic targets setup by higher-ups then further aggravates the matters with coercive, non coordinated and even illegal measures used by certain sections within FBR. The widespread corruption within the department further worsens the matters.

It’d be reasonable to point out that although PRAL (Pakistan Revenue Automation (Pvt) Ltd) does mess up things at times, many of its’ positive endeavors were blocked for fears of eradicating corruption using different pretexts by certain sections of FBR. For example, PRAL once finalized a completely automated system of issuing refunds to tax payers with even an online payment instrument. Naturally there was a huge hue and cry. The project was dumped and the corrupt manual practices continue to date.

Now as if all this was not enough, even the laws governing the whole taxation system are made mockery of within FBR by several officers undermining the good work and efforts undertaken by their more professional colleagues. Just ask any genuine tax payer or tax practitioner about the treatment meted out to them by most FBR officials and you’d be shocked. Due to limited space, this topic will have to be continued in future write-ups.

As for now, perhaps the policy makers and senior FBR officials should consider this dire situation seriously to rectify all the serious problems within FBR. If they fail to do so, the next time they complain about low proportion of tax payers in Pakistan as compared to UK or other developed countries, they should realize that they only have themselves to blame. 

About author:

The author is Director of the think-tank “Millat Thinkers’ Forum”. He is a leading tax expert, experienced fellow Chartered Certified Accountant CFA Charterholder, and anti-money laundering specialist with international exposure who can be reached on Twitter and www.myMFB.com @OmerZaheerMeer or omerzaheermeer@hotmail.co.uk

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The Cherished Dream of Budget

The following article has been published in Daily Nation, dated 1st June 2015

(E-Paper (Print Edition)http://nation.com.pk/E-Paper/lahore/2015-06-01/page-9)

(Onlinehttp://nation.com.pk/business/01-Jun-2015/the-cherished-dream-of-budget)

The cherished dream of budget

 (Budgetary Dreams)

Prof Dp

By: Omer Zaheer Meer

“I have a dream”. These were the famous words uttered at a junction of history which saw a drastic change in the United States of America. With the budget looming around the corner, this scribe too has a dream to share with the readers.

The dream starts with the federal budget of Islamic Republic of Pakistan having just been announced. There are widespread celebrations across the country, for many of the promised reforms have been delivered with path for a longer term change laid down. Pakistan Muslim League’s government has fulfilled its commitments despite some very challenging circumstances. Some of the major reforms and steps taken along-with their justifications, as outlined by the finance minister Mr. Ishaq Dar are detailed below.

Tax Facilitation: Several steps have been taken to reform the taxation system and structures. Firstly the computerized national identity card (CNIC) has been declared as the National Tax Number (NTN) and Sales Tax Registration Number (STRN) for all citizens. This has not only made it extremely easy for any Pakistani to start a business having both the NTN and STRN, hence promoting a culture of entrepreneurship but is also expected to help broaden the tiny existing tax base as the number of filers and ultimately taxpayers are forecasted to increase with the increasing documented nature of the businesses.

Corporate and Agricultural Exemptions: Furthermore exemptions on various businesses as well as the agricultural sector have been withdrawn. This is expected to generate substantial additional revenue as these sectors constitute 30 to 40 percent of national economy as per various studies. These sections have previously been out of the tax net without any substantial benefit to the GDP despite the relaxation. Therefore the Government has now decided to instead facilitate the farmers to increase the productivity as outlined below while ensuring the agricultural sector is brought within the tax-net.

Tax Volume over Margin: Moreover to make taxation less cumbersome and support the initiatives aimed at broadening of the tax base, the strategy of volume over margin has been pursued in that the tax rates have been drastically cut for both individuals and businesses to the lowest level in the entire region. This has not only positioned Pakistan as one of the most tax-attractive destinations in the region with substantial forecasted investments expected to create job opportunities in the country particularly in the power, agriculture and textile sectors but has also created an incentive for businesses and individuals to pay their due taxes, being less cumbersome than the cost of avoiding it with the threat of stringent possible penalties.

Free electricity & water for Agriculture: Another long-awaited major reform to turnaround the ailing economy in an agricultural country has also been taken. Keeping in view of the fact that the Indian Punjab’s output and productivity has been surpassing Pakistan’s and contributing materially to the Indian economic strategy, the Ministry of Finance has given its strategic vision to place Pakistan as the agricultural leader in the region. Water and electricity are declared free for agriculture for those farmers having small holdings or renting the land. The taxes raised from agricultural sector are mostly reserved to fund this initiative.

Further Agricultural Reforms: Furthermore a new body has been created to buy all crops from the farmers at the Government approved rates and supply them to various industries and markets, thereby ensuring the farmers will get their due while the stockists’ induced shortages and inflation can be stemmed out. Furthermore all seeds, fertilizers and other necessities can be brought through this body at discounted rates which has already listed all major quality suppliers in its approved lists. The volume of potential business has motivated suppliers to offer discounted rates in the hopes of additional business increasing their profitability and helping them expand, in turn creating more job opportunities.

HR development & Educational Reforms: To promote the culture of learning and human resource development, the listing criteria of stock exchanges now includes a requirement for the companies to annually spend atleast 1% of their total revenue on the education and/or professional trainings of their workers. Also, new non-corporate businesses spending more than 2% of their turnover on the education and training of their workers are offered tax rebates. These steps are topped up by an increased budgetary allocation of 5% to the education. The impact of this allocation is not very drastic post 18th amendment but is a strong signal and precedent for the provinces to pursue.

Further reforms to support HR development, Education & Entrepreneurship: Supporting the drive for education and entrepreneurship, Government has required all banking institutions to lend interest-free, atleast 5% of their total business to students and startups without any guarantees. To provide assurances to the banks, a fund has been launched backed by insurance to provide monthly returns to the banks to compensate for the loss of interest income while the fund along-with the insurance serves to act as a guarantee for abnormal bad debts in this sector.

Short-term Energy Reforms: Besides the CPEC and other energy projects, to address the severe energy shortage in the shorter term, the solar energy sector has been given a tax-break for five years with a requirement to cap margins at 15%, in order to ensure the benefits of the cost reduction will be passed on to the masses. This step is expected to assist in resolving the severe energy shortage problem in the shorter term as the cost of setting up solar energy systems has been one of the biggest hindrances in its widespread use despite Pakistan’s climate been extremely conducive for it. Furthermore windmill energy sector has also been extended the same favor to capitalize on its potential for cheap electricity generation with minimal initial investment and running costs.

It was here, that this writer woke up. The sadness on missing many more positive reforms engulfed me but the realization struck that this is the same sadness that engulfs every Pakistani post budget every year. Let’s hope and pray that this year will be different.

The author is Director of the think-tank “Millat Thinkers’ Forum”. He is a leading economist, CFA Charterholder, experienced fellow Chartered Certified Accountant and anti-money laundering expert with international exposure who can be reached on Twitter and www.myMFB.com @OmerZaheerMeer or omerzaheermeer@hotmail.co.uk