IT is now becoming a monotonous affair. With almost ridiculous regularity, an amnesty scheme is announced year after year, yet the undocumented economy, tax evasion, money laundering and illegal income-generating activities remain — in fact, they continue to thrive.

Evidence that such schemes bring no benefit to the country is piling up, but for some reason our political class — irrespective of the party they belong to — keeps going back to them.

The best evidence that these schemes bring benefits to a few only lies in the fact that, less than a year after we had one such scheme widely subscribed to, the new government feels compelled to announce another.

The full details are still being worked on, but Finance Minister Asad Umar has let it be known that the scheme will allow the whitening of undeclared assets, and that it has been introduced “on the strong demand of the business community”, according to one report. Some suggestions also exist that, unlike the last scheme, this one could be open to participation by bureaucrats and politicians as well.

Whatever the details that will eventually emerge, the government must remember the track record of previous such schemes; the fact that another is required today simply means they are ineffectual.

What response does the business community give when asked why they did not take the opportunity to whiten their undeclared assets back when they had the chance to do so last year?

And perhaps while he’s at it, Mr Umar should also recall the visceral opposition he, together with the rest of the senior PTI leadership, put up to the same scheme when it was introduced last year. He castigated then finance minister Miftah Ismail for not devising the deal in a transparent manner, without input from parliament or the cabinet. It is now imperative he live up to his own standards, and get parliamentary approval for his version of the amnesty, rather than use an ordinance or some other purely executive power to get it through.

Most importantly, amnesty schemes that allow the whitening of undeclared assets run completely against the promises made by the PTI to its voters so far.

The last scheme had a clause that the proceeds of crime would not be allowed to be whitened through it, and none other than Mr Umar himself publicly mocked this provision, saying it was unenforceable and the government would never know whose assets had been accumulated through criminal proceeds vs simple tax-evaded wealth. There might well be a “strong demand from the business community” for this, but it is neither necessary nor beneficial for the government to oblige the community at every turn. They have been given subsidies on gas and two mini-budgets full of incentives. It is time to turn this tap off and start the business of running the country.

Published in Dawn, April 5th, 2019

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