“It is extremely frustrating for me to see a country and people that are so capable and intelligent, not making more progress than they should in terms of poverty reduction, inequality, modernising the state, and functioning institutions. It is Pakistani elite that needs to decide whether or not they want a country.” — Marc-Andre Franche, outgoing country director of UNDP, Pakistan.
It appears that the Pakistani elite have already made the decision. They want to have a fiefdom, which caters exclusively to their own interests and wellbeing. The rest, the lesser beings, could trudge along and continue to struggle on the fringes of poverty, their lives made more miserable by the country’s antiquated systems, procedures and services. The unconcerned and self-serving ruling elite fall back on parallel channels and bypass arrangements for all their legal and extralegal pursuits.
Whether it is receiving profits on their own savings or paying a tax, the cumbersome and often demeaning procedures inherited from colonial rulers continue to treat ordinary citizens like slaves. The National Savings Organisation refuses to send profits automatically to the bank accounts of its customers and insists on their monthly appearance and humiliation. The agony in waiting in long queues to make a payment at the passport office is another example. The annual vehicle tax payment process will perhaps top the list of numerous such agonising and exasperating experiences.
In Karachi alone, 4.7 million vehicle owners are forced to make two to four completely avoidable visits every year to pay their annual motor vehicle tax. The Sindh Excise and Taxation (E&T) Department’s representatives attached with the designated bank branches in Karachi operate like totally unregulated ‘free electrons’. They may randomly disappear from their seats, be absent for a day, be missing for a week or simply pull down the shutters on the pretext of the ‘system’ being down. Meanwhile, customers must patiently keep making trips to the banks to catch the rare moment when an E&T representative is available, in the mood, on the seat and at work.
The actual motor vehicle tax payment process is quite convoluted. Customers typically wait in a queue for the E&T representative to scrutinise the registration book, log into the E&T server, fill a form and write down the amount to be paid. Equipped with this information, the customers now queue up at a second window (bank counter) to pay the amount and obtain a receipt. The customers then queue up for the third time to present the tax receipt to the E&T representative, who stamps the registration book and updates the computer record. At this stage, a ‘display sticker’ ought to be provided to customers. More often than not, the ‘sticker’ is either not issued or issued for six months only. In simple words, this translates into at least two extra visits. A small injection of modern technology along with a large dose of common sense could completely transform the system of tax payment. The annual motor vehicle tax payment (for that matter all other payments to the government) could be easily made electronically or using phone money transfer schemes. Pakistan has 130 million mobile phone users as well as many excellent mobile money transfer schemes. An SMS message from the E&T department, at the beginning of every year, could inform each car owner the tax that is due for the next one to five years. Customers should have the option to make advance payments for multiple years. Individuals, without leaving their homes, should be able to make payment to the E&T designated bank account, using any of the mobile phone money transfer schemes. An automated SMS message could be generated to confirm the receipt of payment while the car tax sticker could be couriered at the individual’s home address. Citizens in most developed countries are simply not required to visit banks or government offices to pay their dues. Why must Pakistan continue to force its citizens to do so? Often these complex and inefficient systems promote bribery and ghost employees. The Sindh E&T Department ought to replace its 18th-century tax payment system and enable all citizens to make payments using modern technology. Will the Stanford-educated, computer-savvy new chief minister please take at least one small step to simplify the lives of ordinary citizens?
Published in The Express Tribune, September 12th, 2016.
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