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EDITORIAL: Authorities seem pretty proud of the “historic seizure” of 16 million non-duty paid/counterfeit cigarette sticks in “429 raids conducted across the country”. The FBR (Federal Board of Revenue) chairman seems confident that this exercise “would convey an unequivocal message to duty evaders to halt their illicit practices”, especially since criminal proceedings will be initiated in the next round.

Yet perhaps if somebody gave some attention to why this problem persists, instead of first waiting for it to happen, they wouldn’t have to conduct raids up and down the country so often. Clearly, the fact that the market was still flooded with counterfeit cigarettes proves that the much-hyped track-and-trace system, which was supposed to check movement of such commodities, hasn’t worked. And we are, for all intents and purposes, back to square one.

As so often argued in this space, the fault lies with the government machinery, especially the bureaucracy, which has become the very definition of inefficiency, not to mention corruption, over the years. And no reform process can ever take off because the system is such that the civil service would have to carry out the very reforms that are supposed to cut it to size and whip it back in shape. That is why so many administrations have tried to reform the government machinery, and all of them, without exception, have failed.

The last and most spirited push came during the PTI (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf) government, when former State Bank governor Dr Ishrat Hussain was tasked with bringing the civil service in line with modern requirements, as opposed to a paralysed remnant of the raj. And, as expected, it ran out of steam long before any of his ideas could be properly debated, much less applied.

Now things have got so bad that just last week the President had to refer a serious matter of nepotism and corruption in the appointment of legal advisers/advocates by FBR field formations to its chairman, demanding “transparency and due adherence to the law/instructions”. If there is corruption at the level of field formations, that too in matters as insignificant as appointing lawyers, then it is not too hard to imagine how far up the rot must reach. And that explains, all over again, why not many people inside the service are interested in changing things. Hence the status quo bias that all of them willingly suffer from.

It’s also quite unfortunate that the time when governments would at least talk about reforms seems long gone. For, just a few days after a PIDE (Pakistan Institute of Development Economics) study revealed that the state dumps trillions of rupees every year into the fiscal black hole that the service has become, the government decided to give the country’s top bureaucrats a hefty pay raise; even as common Pakistanis suffer under unprecedented inflation and unemployment.

And since there’s no chance of serious reforms, this won’t be the last time authorities have had to conduct raids to seize non-duty paid items. One can only hope that whichever government comes after the election early next year will give serious attention to the bureaucracy, which has become a blessing for all those that serve in it but nothing less than a curse for the government and the people.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2023

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