Dawn Editorial 6th August 2023

Rapacious mining

STRIP the land, plunder the mountains, until all that remains is not even a shadow of a bygone time. That seems to be the approach of the Sindh government in its heedless pursuit of material gain. Its willingness to barter away the province’s glorious natural resources and its heritage puts Sindh’s past as well as its future in peril. The magnificent Karoonjhar mountain range of Nagarparkar in the Tharparkar district, from whose heights rainwater flows down into more than 20 streams in the monsoon season, is of environmental as well as cultural significance. Thankfully, the Sindh High Court, acting on a public interest petition, stepped in after the provincial government last month decided to call for tenders for extracting granite from these hills. This was part of the auction the Sindh government was planning to hold on Aug 4 for small-scale mining permits for lake salt, china clay, marble, gravel, sand and limestone across the province. On Tuesday, the court passed a restraining order till Aug 15 preventing the Mines and Minerals Development Department from undertaking any stone-cutting activities in the Karoonjhar range.

The rich stores of granite in these hills have drawn predatory attention since many years: the first contract for cutting stone here was issued during the Zia regime. In 2008, the PPP government gave the area on a 20-year lease to a private company. The court has now and then intervened to stop the stone-cutting operations here. However, despite protests by activists and locals, illegal quarrying has continued virtually unabated, changing the topography and gutting the history intrinsic to this landscape of ancient holy sites. One hopes the court will once again impose a ban on mining in the Karoonjhar range. But already there are allegations that the SHC’s stay order is being flouted. When the supposed guardians of this land are themselves profiting from its unsustainable exploitation, only continued public pressure will stay their hand.

Published in Dawn, August 6th, 2023

Filers and non-filers

ONE of the major issues with Pakistan’s tax administration is the lack of fairness. The system has been designed in such a way that it punishes those who are documented and in the tax net either by choice or compulsion and rewards those who remain outside it legally or illegally. This means that documented persons — businesses and individuals both — have to bear a greater burden of tax payments to make up for the revenue loss due to tax exemptions, theft and evasion. Simply put, taxpayers are punished for being in the net and non-taxpayers are rewarded for avoiding it. In fact, the latter have also been able to compel successive governments to give them amnesties every few years to legalise their dirty money by paying a negligibly low amount as tax. Little wonder that Pakistan’s tax-to-GDP ratio remains below 9pc, the lowest in the world. Even many poor African countries have a much better tax-to-GDP ratio.

The PML-N’s policy of creating a parallel tax regime for tax filers and non-filers in the name of increasing the tax base and revenues is just another way of extorting more taxes from filers while letting the deviants get away with paying only a fraction of the amount due in taxes. Take the example of separate tax rates for filers and non-filers purchasing land or property. A parliamentary panel was informed on Friday that the changes in the income tax law requiring both filers and non-filers to pay 1pc tax on the deemed rental of the value of properties and assets other than the one for personal use of the taxpayer has widened inequity. The demand is that this tax should be imposed on non-filers but must be abolished for filers because they are already paying 35pc tax on their incomes and have purchased new assets through tax-paid savings. The additional tax on deemed rental actually raises the applicable tax rate on them to 40-45pc. In contrast, the non-filers get away with the payment of just a tiny fraction of what the filers have to pay. It isn’t surprising that only 1pc of the country’s population files tax returns, with almost a third of them showing zero tax liability. Who would want to join the tax net by choice when they can, in fact, reap large rewards if they are not paying their dues?

Published in Dawn, August 6th, 2023

No surprises

PAKISTAN’S twisted political saga continues without the slightest deviation from a tired and predictable script. PTI chairman Imran Khan has been found guilty of “corrupt practices”, disqualified from representing the people of Pakistan, fined Rs100,000, and sentenced to three years in jail for good measure.

If Mr Khan’s actual ‘crime’ seems irrelevant and of little moral significance, it is because former prime ministers Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, Nawaz Sharif, Benazir Bhutto, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Hussain Shaheed Suhrawardy faced similar treatment at the hands of the state; none of the charges levelled against them withstood the test of time.

Indeed, considering the frivolity of the charge and severity of Mr Khan’s punishment, one need not reach too far back in history to find a parallel. Where Mr Sharif’s political dreams were cut short over an unreceived salary, Mr Khan’s political career has been rudely interrupted over failing to properly declare certain gifts he received as prime minister. In neither case, can the severity of the punishment be said to have fitted the ‘crime’.

There is no denying that Mr Khan blundered by not complying with the ECP’s asset declaration rules as strictly as he should have. However, months of reporting on Toshakhana records have since established that very few of those who received gifts in an official capacity may be able to pass similar scrutiny if their records were to be examined with the same vigour.

Given that context, for the court to hand Mr Khan the maximum possible sentence for the offence he was charged with seems excessive. The punishment is all the more problematic after the concerns raised by several observers over the manner in which the trial was conducted and the seeming haste with which the judgement was issued. Of course, Mr Khan is entitled to appeal the sentence, and he may earn a reprieve, but the intended damage may have been done by then.

It must be asked why our state periodically subjects popular leaders to such humiliation when it routinely ignores far more serious crimes. This is, after all, the same country where a clear constitutional edict to hold elections within a specified time frame was wilfully cast aside earlier this year, and there still haven’t been any consequences for the actors involved in the farce.

The fact is that Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto were not, and Imran Khan will not be rendered irrelevant to Pakistanis over some technical knockout. The fate of a politician rests in the hands of their constituency, and no amount of external interference can change this simple relationship. The experiment was tried in the earlier two cases and failed, and the state seems to be repeating the same mistake, only to weaken a fraying social contract further.

Published in Dawn, August 6th, 2023

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