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Dawn Editorial 1 February 2020

FBR leadership crisis

ONCE again the Federal Board of Revenue has been left without a functioning chairman — the second time since news emerged that the government’s financial adviser Hafeez Shaikh showed up at the tax authority’s head office to complain about the continuous shortfalls in revenue collection. This time, as with the last, the FBR chairman said that his leave was for health reasons, and there are no prima facie grounds to doubt his word. But a closer look reveals that the chairman from the private sector, Shabbar Zaidi, is running into growing difficulties in the job. He has the most challenging revenue target to meet that any chairman has had to face in decades. The FBR bureaucracy is doing its best to undermine him at the same time, since it has become famous for not accepting outside leadership or change of any sort. Even before Mr Zaidi took charge in May 2019, a court challenge was mounted against his appointment by an FBR officer who claimed in his petition before the Islamabad High Court that he had a “legitimate expectation for promotion to the post of FBR chairperson, which is the top slot in the hierarchy of his service”. That challenge was thrown out by August, but the resentment of the FBR bureaucracy against the appointment of a private-sector individual to the ‘top slot’ in the revenue authority had been registered. Lately, Mr Zaidi faced more critical questioning about his leadership from Prime Minister Imran Khan as well as the Supreme Court.
It would be an understatement to say that Mr Zaidi has found himself in a hornets’ nest. It is only the sheer depth of his experience and knowledge of the rackets that operate around the country’s revenue system that have held him in good stead through all this. And it is this depth of knowledge and experience that the government badly needs to tap and benefit from when drawing up the next budget, preparations for which should be starting soon. Instead, there are complications. At a time when the revenue machinery is supposed to be developing its own vision for reform as well as pursuing one of the largest and most vigorous exercises for documentation of the economy and broadening the tax base, the FBR seems to be entering into a leadership crisis.
It should be clear to the government, and particularly to the prime minister and his finance team, that a leaderless FBR will not help in their efforts to chase an ambitious revenue target and wage the campaign for documentation, as well as draw up the budget for the coming financial year. While one wishes Mr Zaidi good health at this point, the truth is that he does have something to return to if his stint in government service does not work out. But, as this drama unfolds, what are the government’s plans?


Locust attack

PAKISTAN is facing its worst locust infestation in more than 25 years. The crop-eating grasshopper — which entered Pakistan in June last year, attacked Iran and then spread to some Indian districts along Cholistan — has already struck a large area of the country, especially its south-western districts, in recent months, ravaging cotton and food crops. Locust swarms can potentially threaten our food security and economy if left uncontrolled. Farmers from Sindh and parts of KP have already reported significant crop losses caused by the outbreak. The national food security minister acknowledged the severity of the situation for the first time on Thursday. He dubbed the eruption as “unprecedented and alarming” and also hinted at declaring a national emergency to control the threat. His admission that the country is just one step away from entering the most serious category of the pest attack has raised many an eyebrow over the authorities’ inaction ever since the swarm entered the country. Addressing members of the National Assembly after the issue was raised by some opposition legislators, the minister sought to allay the fears of farmers, saying the government had prepared a national action plan to stop the further spread of locusts and allocated half a billion rupees to control the outbreak. But he didn’t elaborate on the measures so far taken to protect the farmers and their crops.
The outbreak is blamed in part on climate change. If lower temperatures continue and the weather remains wet for a longer time, it will spread even further as a swarm leaves its breeding ground on the Pakistan-India border along Cholistan. Unless the government addresses the situation on an emergency basis, matters are unlikely to come under control until drier weather sets in — and that would be quite late. The outbreak has also exposed how ill-prepared and ill-equipped the authorities are to handle such emergencies. Aerial pesticide spraying is said to be the only effective control. But the government does not have any aircraft for spraying pesticides in areas that are swarming with desert locust, which descended on Karachi in November for the first time in nearly 48 years. According to the United Nations, the timing of pesticide spraying is important to stop the locust from damaging crops, plants and vegetation. The farmers from the affected areas have decried the inaction of the federal and provincial governments. The rulers must realise that further delay in spraying pesticide could multiply crop losses, especially of the smallholders.


Guarding mangroves

FOR centuries, mangroves have acted as custodians of the coastline: they protected the land from soil erosion, prevented flooding, and moderated temperatures. Additionally, they anchored entire ecosystems that depended on them to flourish; this in turn supported the fishing communities of Sindh and Balochistan. However, some of the discontents of modernity and rapid urbanisation have wreaked havoc on the centuries-old, natural way of life, community and business. Mangrove forests are chopped down for wood by timber and other industries that use them for firewood; they are mowed down by short-sighted land and real-estate mafias; and they are dying an early death from pollution, the lack of freshwater flowing into Sindh and the resulting high levels of salinity in the water. In an age of extreme weather and changing climate patterns, with a greater threat of natural disasters striking the coastal communities, the need for safeguarding mangroves could not be more urgent. After all, Pakistan is among the countries most vulnerable to the long-term effects of global climate change. And yet, according to experts, mangroves continue to be cut down due to the greed or ignorance of some. This is a good time as any to remember and pay homage to two environmental activists — Abdul Ghani and Haji Abu Bakar of the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum — who were gunned down when they tried to file a public interest petition against the cutting down of mangroves in their village by powerful groups in 2011.
This week, the National Coordinating Body of the Mangroves for the Future Programme Pakistan underscored the importance of developing a plan to declare Charna Island a marine-protected area. In 2018, the clear waters surrounding the island had been marred by an oil spill. While the Sindh Forest department has taken steps to carry out extensive mangrove plantation drives in the past, there is less effort going into the preservation of existing forests and the biodiversity they support. Much more needs to be done to reverse the damage.


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