Sunday, August 8, 2010

Death and taxes

A common Americanism attributed to Benjamin Franklin goes “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes”. In Pakistan the only certainty these days is death. Everywhere you turn: the crash in Margalla Hills, the worst floods in a generation, endless terrorism and resurgent target-killings. But taxes are an alien concept in Pakistan

In a shaming July article the New York Times states “Out of more than 170 million Pakistanis, fewer than 2 percent pay income tax, making Pakistan’s revenue from taxes among the lowest in the world, a notch below Sierra Leone’s as a ratio of tax to gross domestic product.” A December study by the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency reveals that the average net worth of a Pakistani parliamentarian is $900,000 with its richest topping $37million. The article quotes Zafarul Majeed a senior official of the Federal Board of Revenue as stating that Pakistan’s income from taxes last year was the lowest in the country’s history. And this in face of the PILDAT study which revealed that Pakistani Parliamentarians’ assets doubled in the last year.

To complete our humiliation, the article states: “The country’s top opposition leader Nawaz Sharif reported that he paid no personal income tax for three years ending in 2007 in public documents he filed with Pakistan’s election commission. A spokesman for Mr. Sharif, an industrialist who is widely believed to be a millionaire, said he had been in exile and had turned over positions in his companies to relatives. A month of requests for similar documents for Pakistan’s president and prime minister went unanswered by the commission; representatives for the men said they did not have the figures”

There is a reason for taxes being equated with the certainty of death in the West; they bleed you. And yet how else would health care, education, public transport, roads and railways be financed? The industrialization of Japan, Europe, Canada and the United States testifies to the steep and certain taxes imposed on their respective populace.

And in the injustice that is now so Pakistani, sales tax is imposed and breaks the back of the desperate driver who makes $123 per month while it’s a breeze for the Parliamentarian who makes $1400 per month. God forbid that the Parliamentarian should pay income tax on his millions. Feudals are so powerful and plentiful in Parliament that no federal tax on agriculture has been established.
Would eat into that income too, now wouldn’t it?

British Prime Minister David Cameron insulted Pakistan during a visit to India saying “Britain cannot tolerate in any sense the idea that Pakistan is allowed to look both ways and is able, in any way, to promote the export of terror”. Around this time the Airblue jet crashed in the Margalla Hills numbing an already worn people. Plans are already set for a Presidential jaunt to France and England. Pakistan’s security officials cancel a visit to England in protest of Cameron’s statement but Presidential plans are still on. And then all dams break loose and the worst flood in a generation claims 1400 lives, affects 3.4 million and erases 70% livestock.

One’s mouth hangs open watching footage of houses swallowed by the turbulent waters as though they were made of cards. You rewind and play thinking that it must be a simulation and forget to move because it is not.

It is a terrible day at work for those images keep coming back and block other brain activity. And somehow the day ends and I struggle back only to be hit hard with more devastation and the worst insult to Pakistan’s injury: Zardari’s trip to France and England on public expense. Now I feel like I have PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder, I am not kidding. PPP diehards in England wail protests joining the national chorus of condemnation. But the French chateaus beckon.

Despite the noise of the naysayers, the President proceeds. But why the entourage of an entire plane load? The entire ninth floor of the Hyatt Regency, The Churchill a swanky 5-star hotel in London is booked. Tab-£7000 a suite. Dozens of Rolls Royces and Bentleys wait to entertain the entourage, not to forget the special chef and food.

Now I just don’t have PTSD, I feel like the girl in Exorcist: my whole head is turning around and green yuk wants to spew forth.

And when the bill is paid from the taxes of those stupid Pakistanis that did not know how to evade them or the millions brought in from sales tax, who is counting and who cares?

Zardari and his entourage may have missed the point, but British-Pakistani politicians have not for they stolidly refused to meet with him. “I’m not going to meet with the president because I believe that a head of state needs to be in his country of origin when people are drowning and have nowhere to go. He is spending poor people’s money on the launch of his son’s political career at a time when his country needs him shows that he’s out of touch and his advisors are ill-informed. Quite frankly, staying in five-star hotels with his huge entourage, tens of big cars that have been hired just to give him this protocol in London, it’s quite outrageous” said Labour peer Lord Nazir Ahmed. He was echoed by Labour MP Khalid Mahmood.

And then the foreign policy gaffes. Feeling the criticism, Zardari attempted to deflect it by some chest thumping: the coalition was losing the war on terror, he said in an interview to a French paper. Even if that is the case, a statement by the leader of a frontline state only serves to strengthen terrorism and cause more loss of life in Pakistan.

Maybe it is my mental handicap that I am still at a loss to understand this madness. “How do they sleep at night?” I scream at a colleague. He claims they do not have a conscience. I insist that everyone does. Well then, they have given it Valium and put it to bed! So there you have it: no conscience, no taxes. Just a flood of death-for the poor.

Mahjabeen Islam is a columnist, family physician and addictionist. She can be reached at