In his post-budget conference, finance minister and chairman FBR had claimed that the government hopes to eliminate exemptions enjoyed by the elite worth Rs343 billion, and that fresh taxes of just Rs2 billion have been proposed affecting lower- and middle-income classes.Unsurprisingly, the finance team did not clarify whether the elimination of exemption on raw materials for infant formula, poultry and animal feed, and crop seeds etc impact only the elite or also the lower income groups. Because the sum of proposed taxes on these products shall clearly exceed Rs2 billion!
Yet, the ruling party surrogates have taken FM’s claim much too literally. Many have been found insisting that products such as infant formula are a luxury, only consumed by those in the higher income segments, who can ‘obviously’ afford to pay a 17 percent sales tax levy. Sound logic. Unfortunately, going by news reports, the public isn’t so thrilled.
Thankfully, the ruling party also has trained neonatologists in its ranks, who have volunteered to school the public in Child Care 101. “Formula is no substitute for mother’s milk”, we are told. Clearly a ‘revelation’ in a deeply religious and traditional society where breastfeeding is a preferred method as per faith. Apparently, the formula-feeding elite cabal is not just tax-evading, but is neither pious nor receives the right medical advice from their doctors trained in anti-Islamic western medicine.
Infantile arguments (yes, pun is intended) should have no place in public policy, yet that’s exactly how low the bar has fallen. In a country where over half of women of child-bearing age are malnourished, lecturing the public on the benefits of breastfeeding achieves little. Formula and infant preparations are not ‘preferred’ over breastfeeding, but are used despite it. As one Lahore-based educationist pointed out, “breastfeeding is a luxury” only available where both the mother and the infant are in good health, and the mother is readily available at home during the early months of child development (read: is not employed full-time out of home).
If you are reading this article published in an English language financial daily, chances are you are a member of elite. Even higher chances that the house-help at your home is a female of child-rearing age. Between female members of your family and househelp, guess which one is possibly malnourished and spends greater part of her day away from her child/ren?
According to a 2016 survey finding by National Institute of Population Studies, 62 percent of Pakistani women surveyed “would not want to work" after marriage. In a country where rate of female participation in labour force is already low, public policy should be geared towards improving the ease of women returning to work post-maternity, not hamstrung it. Instead, fly-by-the-night advisors (with no skin in the game) would prefer to chide mothers for not using express feeding Never mind that those policymakers wouldn’t know the first thing about the cost and prevalence of such equipment, let alone take any measures to facilitate its widespread adoption.
The PM is clearly good at rousing passions. In his maiden speech three years ago, he shocked the public by brandishing an MRI scan of a child with stunted brain development, an outcome of malnourishment and food insecurity. Yet, by proposing fresh taxes on food staples – and not just infant formula - his government has remained consistent in its inconsistency. Sure, he can blame the IMF, as if the Fund programme was previously delayed for 8 months due to unresolvable differences over PCT heading 1901.1000!
But before the blame is squarely laid at the alter of ‘Washington Consensus’, it may be worthwhile to remember that the same regime levied reduced GST of 12 percent on local sales of fashion garments, while proposing maximum GST of 17 percent on dairy products such as butter (a breakfast staple across income categories) in the last budget before being forced to retract it.
MRI scans make for great optics. But when it comes to nutrition and dairy, the incumbent regime has no policy, never mind the official co-opting of langarkhanainitiatives by NGOs.