FBR vs traders
THE talks between the Federal Board of Revenue and trader associations ended in deadlock on Friday after a strenuous round of negotiations. The trader associations have flexed their muscles in the recent past by effectively carrying out a countrywide strike that saw an enthusiastic response in all major cities, although it was somewhat divided in the metropolis of Karachi. Since then they have been able to muster substantial unity, perhaps enough to repeat the exercise for a longer period, despite the internal divisions in their ranks. The large number of trader bodies means getting them all on one platform is akin to herding cats, especially since their business is very sensitive to daily disruptions. The fact that they have come together in their rejection of the new documentation measures announced in the last budget means that the opposition facing the FBR is powerful, especially now that the so-called war on smuggling and fixed tax regime for retailers is supposed to begin.
It is important to underline here that the FBR has the moral high ground in the whole debate. The fact that traders across Pakistan are fighting to not pay taxes, not get registered, and to continue dealing in smuggled goods does not do their cause any favour. For more than two decades now, the mushrooming growth of the services sector, particularly retail and wholesale trade, has meant that a growing section of our economy is largely undocumented. There is no way to justify this and at some point, the traders will have to come into the net.
For its part, though, the FBR and more generally the government need to take a realistic view of their own ambition as well. Bringing an end to smuggling is a laudable objective, but fighting smuggling at the retail end is a little like treating the symptoms rather than the disease. Leakages from the Afghan Transit Trade are a significant contributor to the scourge of smuggling, as is the connivance of customs officials at the port. And in matters of tax and registration, the traders will prove themselves to be a stubborn lot, capable of putting up a substantial fight for the sake of staying outside the tax net. This will be a long-drawn-out tussle between the authorities and the trader bodies, and time is not on the government’s side since it seems to have programmed a fair amount of revenue collection through the exercise to meet its targets under the IMF programme. The option to declare defeat and roll back the effort, like Gen Musharraf did when he last launched the same initiative back in 2000, carries enormous cost. The FBR is right to power ahead with the effort, but this must be done intelligently to gradually wean the traders from their bad habit of living off undocumented incomes.
PAKISTAN has enormous potential for growing tourism. Endowed with spectacular mountain ranges, lush green valleys, pristine beaches, ancient civilisations, splendid Mughal architectural heritage and welcoming people, the country has so much to offer tourists. Yet successive governments have failed to develop this potential into a robust industry. Pakistan was never a preferred destination for international tourists. Still, it attracted a good number of low-budget travellers, as well as adventure and religious tourists from around the world despite underdeveloped hospitality services and poor transport infrastructure. However, their numbers fell over the last three decades as the security situation deteriorated. The killings of foreign climbers by militants in Gilgit-Baltistan in 2013 proved to be the proverbial last nail in the coffin.
No doubt, international tourist arrivals and receipts have increased in the last couple of years with improvement in law and order. Yet the tourism industry continues to lag far behind other countries in the region. A recent Travel and Tourism Competitive Report of the World Economic Forum points out that Pakistan remains the least competitive country in South Asia when it comes to travel and tourism and places it at the bottom of the Asia-Pacific Travel and Tourism Competitive Index 2019. In a ranking of 140 countries, Pakistan came in at 121 this year, three notches up from its previous position of 124 in 2017. The report does acknowledge that Pakistan is the “most improved country in terms of human resources and labour market”, but insists that it still requires “substantial improvements in competitiveness to move up in rank and out of the bottom quartile”. A thriving tourism industry can have significant impact on a country’s economic growth. Tourism has been a major source of foreign exchange revenues for developing countries like Egypt and Thailand, and provided them the foundation to build their economies. Since its inception, the Imran Khan government has emphasised the importance of developing a robust tourism sector, but not much has been done so far. Indeed, measures such as the easing of visa processing times and relaxation of restrictions on foreign travellers wanting to visit certain parts of the country will go a long way in attracting them. But that is not enough. The government needs to go further in giving tourists freer access to more far-flung areas and offer incentives for private capital to provide infrastructure and hospitality services to realise the true economic potential of this industry.
Horror in the classroom
THE death of 17-year-old Hunain Bilal in Lahore last Thursday, allegedly at the hands of his teacher, did not come out of the blue. Pakistanis should be quite used to such tragic happenings. And these are the reported cases — the tip of the iceberg. In May in Sharaqpur, two teachers were booked for allegedly hanging a class three student from a tree. Earlier, a teacher in Multan was accused of beating a student and then letting loose a few blows at the same student’s father, who had apparently dared to question the punishment meted out to his son. The media is flush with similar stories from madressahs, and even from educational institutions where women are in charge. Still vivid in the memory is the story of a class nine student said to have been pushed from the school rooftop by two of her teachers. The latest victim, Hunain, attended a private school in Lahore — only to be confronted brutally by a reality that shakes people but unfortunately doesn’t stir real change.
Last year, the Federal Directorate of Education warned teachers of public schools and colleges in Islamabad against corporal punishment. Throughout the country one comes across rhetoric about ‘pyaar’ — affection, over ‘maar’ — torture. Although for some odd reason the focus of these slogans has been more on the public schools, overall there appears in society an acceptance of corporal punishment — with the elders fondly remembering how this mode of ‘disciplining’ in school was central to their success in life. Outmoded values continue to view a child as raw material from which to shape a good citizen, rather than as a human being with at least equal rights to that of an adult. This attitude encourages a ‘justification’ for violence among those who arrogate to themselves the responsibility of ‘creating’ the right kind of individual out of a student. After young Hunain’s senseless death, the Punjab education minister has promised legislation against corporal punishment. This is the least that can be done.