Revolting reforms

Published: November 8, 2019

The Federal Board of Revenue (FBR) has been the scene of some serious differences being debated between the PTI government’s vision and the ground realities of tax collection. Most recently, the FBR’s entire top tax hierarchy ‘cautioned’ the board chairman, Shabbar Zaidi, against advancing with the plans to set up Pakistan Revenue Authority (PRA) — the government’s planned replacement for the FBR.

Among their grievances is the elimination of the grade 21 chief commissioner post and putting numerous grade 20 Customs posts into grade 21. They claim it would put too much pressure on the members for Inland Revenue while favouring Customs.

In many other cases, they insist the proposed PRA reforms could already be substituted if the existing FBR Act was properly implemented. And they have a point. The CBR became the FBR. The FBR will become the PRA. But the corruption within society and within the agency will remain unchanged. FBR officials have been known to protest against appointments based on ethnicity. Many years ago, when an officer hailing from Punjab was appointed Member South — arguably the most difficult and important posting of that grade level — lower officials were offended that the appointee wasn’t a Karachi native.

When he tried to remove or reshuffle officers of poor repute, politicians and colleagues from the FBR and other departments would pop in and demand that the posting orders be withdrawn, or the replacements ‘at least’ be of the same ethnicity. Merit was not a factor for them. This is a problem that transcends government departments and delves deep into our societal order. We all want merit until the meritorious person turns out to be someone we don’t like. The PTI’s plan to modernise the FBR and cut slack may well be what the agency needs, but it would be unwise for anyone to expect that they will go through without any hitches or blowback. At the same time, the officers’ demands for a more structured transition and reforms within other organs of the government are not misplaced. You can’t fix one diseased organ and call it a day when the cancer has spread across the body.

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