Penniless lawmakers?

20 Sep 2020

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THOSE who decide what part of their incomes the citizens of this country should give in taxes to finance the affairs of the state brazenly avoid paying their own share, in spite of living a life of privilege and luxury. What else defines the elite capture of the state if not this? Few parliamentarians, if any, might have felt remorse when finance adviser Hafeez Sheikh disclosed on Friday that 311 members of the National Assembly and 90 senators had collectively paid just Rs800m in taxes on their income during the tax year 2018. Members of the provincial assemblies have together paid even less — Rs340m, according to the sixth tax directory released by the FBR. Many legislators, including two federal ministers, Faisal Vawda and Zartaj Gul, did not pay any income tax at all while the likes of Sardar Yar Muhammad Rind deposited Rs400, Zulfiqar Bachani Rs388 and Kanwal Shozab Rs165. Punjab Chief Minister Usman Buzdar, too, did not earn enough to qualify as a taxpayer.

It is unfair to accuse legislators of avoiding taxes. There is every possibility that their incomes fell below the taxable threshold or were exempt from tax payment. Yet the luxurious lifestyle of a vast majority of legislators from the treasury and opposition benches tells a different story. The imported cars they drive, the large homes they live in, the schools their children go to, their foreign vacations and multiple pilgrimages create doubt in the minds of the people who pay more income tax despite being unable to afford a decent education for their children or healthcare costs. The tax directory is important for the sake of transparency and accountability but it is not enough. The FBR’s job is to audit the legislators’ returns and ensure that the taxes they paid matches their lifestyles. Where their incomes are tax-exempt, it is advisable to review those exemptions. Legislators must pay their share of taxes and willingly present themselves for audit if the tax culture is to be promoted in the country.

Published in Dawn, September 20th, 2020