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EDITORIAL: It was indeed gracious of President Arif Alvi to apologise on behalf of his government to the 83-year-old pensioner who was given a run around by the FBR’s (Federal Board of Revenue’s) corrupt and incompetent machinery for a good 15 months for a tax refund of only Rs 2,333. It turns out that the retired gentleman claimed the said amount in lieu of tax deductions in telephone and mobile phone bills on 19 October 2020. Two months, and no-response, later, he filed another application, this time with the FBR chairman, on 24 December 2020. Then he submitted all relevant certificates to the Bureau once again on 21 January 2021, only to be rejected on 29 January 2021 on grounds that he failed to submit original certificates required for authentication.

That forced the complainant to approach the FTO (Federal Tax Ombudsman) who, upon investigating the matter, ordered FBR on 2 June 2021 to revisit the impugned order and issue a fresh one under section 170(4) of the income tax ordinance, besides also calling for disciplinary proceedings against the officer responsible for passing the first order and dragging the taxpayer unnecessarily through litigation. But that only made FBR file a response against the ombudsman’s orders with the president on 24 June 2021. That’s when a retired Supreme Court judge looked into the matter and gave his findings on 13 January 2022; and the president rejected FBR’s position and upheld the FTO’s decision. According to the rulebook, it was the duty officer’s job to verify all submitted certificates with PTCL and cell phone companies through their online systems, which makes this story the classic example of blatant abuse of official powers in which the only aim seemed to be either extracting a bribe from the gentleman or simply irritating and humiliating him for his persistence, as the FTO also wondered.

“Our heads should hang in shame,” President Alvi rightly said as he ordered the FBR chairman to look into this problem himself and sort out the entire chain responsible for it. This was just one case that reached the presidency, and therefore also the press, and that too after almost a year-and-a-half. And it’s anybody’s guess how many more must still be jammed in the pipeline, or the number of people that continue to be forced to grease palms to get rid of such needless headaches. Also, taking note of such travesties and extending apologies is all very nice and highly appreciated, but such things do very little to actually solve the problem. Hopefully, the president giving the FBR chairman a call and sounding very angry is not all the government intends to do about it.

In such situations actions speak much louder than words, and the government is now expected to show what actions it is going to take, beyond the mere reaction of punishing one individual of course, to restore people’s confidence. It is because of such things that just about the only people that indulge the tax collector are the ones without the power and means to dodge it. PTI (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf) has made a big fuss about things like corruption and accountability right since its inception. It’s also long lamented the inability of FBR to expand its tax net, as well as the general reluctance of the masses to pay income tax. It now has the opportunity to kill all these birds with one stone. It’s also talked endlessly about institutional reforms aimed at making government outlets less corrupt and more efficient. Yet all this while it has been lacking the political will to take these bulls by the horns.

The main problem with unchecked corruption in places like the FBR is that individual officers are able to fill their pockets only at the cost of the Bureau’s reputation and subsequent loss to the national exchequer, which hurts the fiscal balance and forces the whole country to borrow more. Yet since the buck here, as in all such things, stops with the federal government, it alone is responsible for stopping all unhealthy and illegal practices and restoring the system that is currently rotten to the core.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2022

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