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Express Tribune Editorials – 27th February 2016

Pay tax? No thanks

To the surprise of nobody other than those that dreamed up this most unlikely of schemes, the government’s tax amnesty scheme appears to have died a death. The Voluntary Tax Compliance Scheme came into effect on February 1 and the expectation by the government was that one million traders would sign up for it by the end of the month and start pouring money into government coffers. At the time of writing, it is reported that 128 traders have signed up and contributed Rs20 million in taxation, a minuscule sum in the overall scheme of things and probably not far off the cost of advertising across media platforms to promote the scheme. Seemingly it was the siren song of some — but not all — of the representatives of the traders, which convinced Finance Minister Ishaq Dar that there would be a strong take-up from the traders and success was assured.
This is not the first time that a scheme to persuade those eligible for taxation to pay their dues voluntarily has been launched. The prime minister offered industrialists, never a group known for willing tax compliance, an amnesty scheme in 2013, which effectively enabled them to launder their ‘black money’. It fell as flat as this latest effort. Quite what the finance minister thought he was doing when he gave the go-ahead is a mystery. He is known for his fiscal conservatism and prudence rather than a man who signs up for something as hare-brined as this has proven to be.
The onus for failure must also be borne by parliament that approved the scheme in the first place. Did nobody question the fundamentals behind this and was there truly an expectation that a million independently-minded traders were willingly going to line up and enter the tax fold? Apparently yes, and the government has not given up yet as it is contemplating a 15-day extension. The Federal Board of Revenue is rightly sceptical as it, above all others, will be acutely aware that the outcome is going to be no different if the extension is granted. Back to the drawing board ladies and gentlemen, and better luck next time

BJP promises

When the BJP government in India swept into power in 2014, it made a lot of big promises. Prime Minister Narendra Modi enjoyed huge popularity thanks in part to his savvy use of social media. He seemed exactly like the kind of prime minister a modern and vibrant India needed. Charismatic enough to be liked by the public, having enough political acumen to hold his own against top international leaders and with enough power to usher in fast-paced economic growth in his country. Cut to two years later and the good days Mr Modi promised have failed to materialise; at least as far as civil liberties are concerned. In its annual report released on February 24, Amnesty International has pointed out the Indian government’s failure to uphold personal freedoms. It has spoken critically of the government’s support for intolerance through both speech and action. NGOs critical of the Indian government have seen restrictions imposed on their funding, individuals have been kept in prison without any charges or trial and there is growing minorities- and caste-based discrimination.
Meanwhile, the Indian government terms criticism of its actions attempts to take attention away from its cornerstone policy of rapid economic growth. Mr Modi has said that he is the prime minister for the whole of India, not just of people belonging to a particular religion or caste. However, as protesters marched through Delhi, decrying the government’s decision to arrest a student leader on sedition charges, his assertion did not seem to hold true. The sedition charges are viewed as yet another attempt to censor free speech and curb the right of individuals to question government policies and actions. Amnesty International has noted in its report that while the Indian government does not appear willing to take measures to uphold civil liberties, the people of India have different ideas. There is widespread criticism from various segments of society against intolerance. If India is to become the pluralistic society it wishes to be, its government needs to pay attention to the voice of the people for whom the good days still seem a distant dream.

Students and stupidity

For the second time in a month, schoolchildren have caused fear and confusion by exploding what are described as ‘crackers’ in or near school premises. In the first instance which happened in Karachi, a group of disgruntled students threw ‘crackers’ at a private school from which they were fee-defaulters and had been excluded from an examination. At around the same time, there were two other incidents in which small bombings were carried out by terrorists in the city. Unsurprisingly, the police at first treated the ‘cracker’ throwing as a case of terrorism, only discovering on close investigation that it was not.
In the second incident, a student at the government Boys Higher Secondary School in Faisalabad exploded crackers soon after assembly ended. Pandemonium quickly erupted. Both staff and pupils thought the school was under attack and fled in all directions. The police were called and the student was taken into custody after being caught by staff and locals. When asked why he would do such a thing, the student replied that he was merely curious to see what the reaction would be, and thought he would gain the approval of his friends for playing such a prank. Whilst both incidents have different motivations behind them, they do share the common factor of gross, and dangerous, irresponsibility. Put bluntly — they should have known better, but self-evidently, did not. In the first instance, it is more than possible that lives could have been lost with the police responding to what they would, not surprisingly, see as an act of terror. The second incident demonstrates a chilling misperception as to the consequences of one’s actions. In both instances, the ability to differentiate between right and wrong was absent, the critical skill that applies the handbrake and makes an emergency stop when a line has been crossed. Both incidents demonstrated a willingness to put others at hazard and in the latter, an expectation of peer approval. Once again, deviant behaviour is played out and perceived as normative. We may expect more of the same in a society increasingly bereft of moral structure.
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