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Dawn Editorial 22 January 2020

Pleading for revenue

THE prime minister’s recent meeting with business leaders and chamber presidents featured some of his old rhetoric all over again, despite the passage of a year and a half in power. He asked them to pay their taxes, and reminded them that his government had slashed the personal expenses of Prime Minister House, and that the ‘lavish lifestyles’ of his predecessors were no longer a burden on the government exchequer. He also told them that his government would spend tax money on the Ehsaas programme for the poor, after coming up with whatever was required for defence and debt servicing. The audience, which consisted in significant measure of members of the business community connected with trading, seemed largely unmoved by the presentation.
The prime minister’s rhetoric is ineffectual for a variety of reasons. For one, his personal expenses are not really a factor in people’s decision to file, or not file, their returns, or get their enterprises registered with the tax authorities. Those expenses are miniscule, and besides, the prime minister’s claim that he has slashed them does not hold up to scrutiny. For another, spending on Ehsaas, which basically carries forward the work that began with the Benazir Income Support Programme, is also not likely to motivate people to get their businesses registered. Broadening the tax base is a policy matter and it is not going to happen via emotional appeals. Mr Khan tried this approach all through the first months of his coming to power. By now, it should be obvious to him that begging, pleading, cajoling and demanding that people comply with the laws only signal a weakness. What is needed is a schedule of incentives and disincentives that is designed in a way to get people to step forward and get their businesses registered.
Finding that schedule of incentives has been a policy conundrum for rulers in Pakistan for almost two decades now. We have tried force as well as registration requirements and made aggressive use of withholding agents embedded in the supply chains that span the trading economy. The previous government experimented with a novel carrot-and-stick approach for traders only, slapping penalties on their bank transactions if they were unregistered, while offering them an amnesty scheme if they chose to come into the net. All of these came to nought. Now the government has to demonstrate its seriousness of purpose in its endeavour, and realise that emotional appeals will not achieve anything. The government has already accommodated all the traders’ demands in an ordinance released in the final days of 2019, and now the time has come for it to demand that the trader community live up to its end of the bargain. What will be the cost of failure on this front? Both the government and the trader community should know this clearly.


Middle East tumult

FOR nearly a century, ever since the colonial powers firmly established themselves in the Middle East and divided up the pieces of the Ottoman Empire, the region has failed to witness long-term stability. The region — largely due to its geopolitical importance as an energy powerhouse — continues to see instability, with irresponsible external powers fuelling chaos, and incapable local elites unable to handle the demands of their people. In the Levant, Lebanon is on the boil. Protesters are livid at the Lebanese ruling class, while a severe economic crisis threatens the already fragile financial health of the Mediterranean state. In Iraq, people are back on the streets, demanding reform and better governance; ever since the 2003 US invasion, there has been no stable government in that country, while living standards in one of the world’s leading oil producers are abysmal. As for Iran, it has been shaken by the assassination of Gen Qassem Soleimani by the US, with Tehran threatening to leave the NPT if the EU goes to the UN to report Iran’s perceived non-compliance with the nuclear deal. The crisis was sparked when President Donald Trump unilaterally pulled the US out of the multilateral deal. The ayatollahs see no reason to comply as they are not getting any benefits from the nuclear deal; instead, the Americans have further tightened sanctions, practically choking the Iranian economy. Meanwhile, Yemen continues to suffer episodes of violence; a recent Houthi missile strike at a government base reportedly killed over 100 loyalist troops.
Though disparate, there is a common thread running through these crises: much of the present chaos in the Middle East is fuelled by the confrontation between two rival axes — the pro-US camp, consisting of Israel and the Arab sheikhdoms, and Iran and its regional allies on the other side. In the long term, for peace to prevail, the US must review its aggressive posture and withdraw its military presence from the region. Instead of flexing its military muscle, let Washington deal with regional states in a spirit of friendship and cooperation. As for Iran and its Arab nemeses, both sides need to resolve their differences at the negotiating table and learn to live with each other, without America interfering. Major Muslim states including Turkey, Malaysia and Pakistan can play a leading role in bringing the two sides together for a more peaceful and stable Middle East.


Rights activist’s detention

IT is inexplicable how the state appears discomfited by human rights activists. After all, they ask for nothing more than what the Constitution guarantees — rights to security of person, due process, freedom of speech, etc. So what can explain the humiliating treatment meted out to human rights activist Jalila Haider at the Lahore airport on Monday?
Ms Haider was travelling to the UK to participate in a women’s coalition conference when she was detained for seven hours by the FIA who told her she had to wait for some individuals who “were coming with documents on” her. That visit never materialised — possibly because the negative publicity prompted a rethink. Her travel documents were then returned to her, with permission to board the next flight to her intended destination.
Ms Haider is the first female lawyer from Balochistan’s Hazara community, a Shia ethnic group which has suffered horrendous levels of sectarian violence over the years.
The courageous and outspoken young advocate, who works for the rights of vulnerable women and children, came to public attention when she went on a hunger strike in 2018 to protest against the targeted killings of Hazaras in Quetta. In 2019, her activism earned her a place among the BBC’s list of 100 most inspiring and influential women around the world.
Perversely, her achievements seem to have kindled the suspicions of ever-sensitive state functionaries. Are we to assume that raising a voice for those who have been denied their rights is a subversive activity?
Whoever is responsible for the disservice to the country’s global image on account of the recent episode must be held accountable.
The increasing tendency to detain people on the basis of a ‘black list’ which has no basis in law — or to place them on the ECL without following the prescribed procedure — also demands the government’s attention. Such methods of state oppression are employed in countries where the right to due process holds no meaning. We should steer clear of that disreputable club of nations.


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