Dawn Editorial 4 May 2021

Routine immunisation

AS countries around the world grapple with the deadly third wave of Covid-19 and we witness the horrific devastation across the border, it is easy to forget about other prevalent infections and their damaging impact on countless lives. While millions wait desperately for any brand of the Covid vaccine, there are many who have little awareness of the necessity of routine vaccinations that can prevent common illnesses such as measles and polio. They thus end up endangering the lives of their children. In fact, it emerged at an event recently organised by the Ministry of National Health Services in connection with World Immunisation Week (observed in the last week of April every year) that vaccination provided under the government’s Expanded Programme of Immunisation can prevent 17pc of fatalities among young Pakistani children. The EPI provides free essential immunisation for children up to 15 months of age. This set of inoculations prevents 11 illnesses: tuberculosis, polio, measles, diphtheria, whooping cough, tetanus, haemophilus influenza type B, hepatitis B, diarrhoea, pneumonia and typhoid.
Poor vaccination coverage results in thousands of deaths of small children and infants who have not received adequate care at home or in public hospitals that often lack proper medical services. This gaping hole in our healthcare system is preventing us from achieving SDG 3 that relates to infant and child mortality. While matters have slowly improved over the years, the mortality rate still remains high — as many as 67 children out of 100,000 die before their fifth birthday. Unfortunately, poor facilities and the government’s apathy have taken us to a point where many illnesses that have been eradicated in the rest of the world, such as polio, are still prevalent in Pakistan. The lives of thousands of children can be saved through vaccines that are part of our routine immunisation programme. Unfortunately, free immunisation on its own is not enough if there is no attempt on the part of our health authorities to make vaccines accessible to the public and to educate the latter on their importance.



Electoral reforms

THE government’s proposal on Monday of extensive electoral reforms is a welcome announcement. Far too many elections, including last week’s NA-249 bypoll, have ended in accusations of manipulation and rigging. From ‘missing’ electoral staff to the hijacking of entire ballot boxes, even the most far-fetched of schemes somehow become possible during our election process.
But although Babar Awan’s specific proposals to the Elections Act 2017 are a step in the right direction, the history of strained relations between the government and opposition means that a constructive debate on this crucial issue will be an uphill task.
Here, the government must take the lead, not just in proposing amendments but also in demonstrating its commitment to parliamentary debates. Underpinning this exercise is trust. The opposition parties have little confidence in the government. Prime Minister Imran Khan on several occasions has talked of electoral reforms, but his party’s toxic relationship with the opposition has left little room for engagement on this, or any other, issue. He and his government must prove their commitment to reforms with a consistent debate in parliament, where the opposition feels it is being heard.
The latter, on its part, must not be quick to reject every proposal made by the government if it seeks a resolution to the problem. Ironically, the party, which has rejected the establishment’s role in elections and accused the PPP of winning with its help in the NA-249 poll, has called for army personnel to take custody of the ballots in Karachi. A comprehensive debate followed by consensus on electoral reform — an exercise that should categorically rule out any role for the establishment as the PPP chairman indicated at a press conference yesterday — is the only way to address the instability and chaos that are all too evident when polls are held.
For far too long, our elections have been marred by the interference and influence of either the ruling party or the establishment. Pakistan is fortunate that its electoral system is linked to Nadra, which has several layers of identification for those registered with it. A rigging-proof system, which cannot be manipulated through technical delays, is possible if political stakeholders sit together to make it so. This unpleasant and dangerous trend of tainted elections must end, as it steals the right of the electorate to indicate their choice. Moreover, these episodes erode the public’s faith in the system and in democracy itself.
The events of the two recent NA bypolls in Daska and Karachi, and the Senate polls this year, are an example of the mayhem that will unfold if political stakeholders do not address electoral challenges before the next general election. Reforms eliminate the involvement of those who rig the ballot box and it is in the collective interest of the political parties to accept this. Failure to do so will be a loss for everyone.



Unmet tax targets

THE FBR has increased its tax collection by 14pc to Rs3.8tr this year during the 10-month period from July to April — up from Rs3.3tr a year ago. But this amount is not enough. At the current pace, it will not be possible for the board to meet even the revised tax target of Rs4.7tr for the entire year. The poor performance of the FBR remains a source of concern for every stakeholder— government, multilateral lenders and the public at large. Year after year, the FBR has failed to meet its tax targets although millions have been spent on restructuring the board and ‘reforming’ tax administration over the last two decades or so. Little wonder then that Pakistan’s tax-to-GDP ratio remains one of the lowest in the world. But it would be unfair to lay the entire blame on the tax collectors. Successive governments — civil and military — have also contributed to the current state of affairs by postponing tax reforms to broaden the base of taxpayers, as well as allowing exemptions to the wealthy out of political expediency. Consequently, less than 1pc of the population files income tax returns. This is in spite of the official claims that the board has credible data of more than 7m people whose withholding taxes are deducted, but who do not file their returns. They also include over 3m people who, according to the FBR, frequently travel abroad, live in large homes in posh localities and drive luxury cars but do not pay income tax.
The narrow tax base means that the share of direct taxes, especially income tax, would shrink in the total tax revenue, which is worrying given the established relationship between poverty and the high incidence of indirect taxation. Even the bulk of direct taxes is collected ‘indirectly’ through imposition of withholding and presumptive levies, which shifts the burden of the wealthy onto the poor and middle-income segments of the population, while powerful lobbies such as big farmers and retailers/wholesalers get away without paying their share of taxes. A narrow tax net also restrains the government’s ability to reduce the burden of taxes on the organised sector at the expense of new investment and jobs. Raising the ratio of tax revenues to the size of the economy will remain a pipe dream without meaningful restructuring of the FBR to plug leakages, reduce inefficiencies and eliminate corruption in addition to reforming the entire taxation regime to make it equitable and fair.

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