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Opinion

April 16, 2016

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Resisting the customs

One step forward and two steps back. This is what the political governments in Pakistan are best at, the latest example being the implementation of the Customs Act in the Provincially Administered Tribal Areas (Pata). The notification was issued on March 28, 2016 and within just a fortnight, the KP government is backtracking.

The states of Swat and Dir were formally annexed by Pakistan in 1969 through a presidential order. Special status was given to Swat, Dir, Kohistan, Amb and Chitral in the 1973 constitution as Pata, vide article 246(b). Article 247(3), which limited the authority of parliament from enacting or expanding legislation to these regions without the sanction of the president.

The Customs Act of 1969 was extended to Pata in 1975 but true implementation was held in abeyance until the order of March 28. This order has generated a storm within Pata by vested interests. Shutter-down strikes have been observed and the public representatives from Malakand division are threatening to resign if the order is not rescinded. It is ironic that these legislators vote on tax laws for the rest of Pakistan but refuse to obey the same laws themselves.

It has been reported that the implementation of the Customs Act was requested at a meeting of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Apex Committee, which was formed under the National Action Plan. It was reportedly stated by the security forces that its absence in Pata was helpful to anti-state elements. It was argued that Pata was a haven for “non-custom paid” motor vehicles (“non-custom paid” is just a soft term for smuggled vehicles). The government does not have any records of these vehicles, numbering in the thousands. They are frequently used in crimes and acts of terrorism. The security forces recommended that the law be applied across Pata to check this menace.

Besides the issue of smuggled vehicles, there is the issue of direct revenue collection from Pata by the provincial or federal government . The only income tax paid there is a payroll deduction from government employees. However, Pata does get a share of the federal and provincial budgets and also avails services provided by the state.

We are yet to hear any good arguments against the extension of the Customs Act to Pata that are more than just rhetoric. There was supposedly an agreement between the former ruler of Swat and Pakistan, promising no taxes for the next 100 years. The other argument is based on the general economic backwardness of Pata.

We are yet to see a copy of the agreement between the Wali-e-Swat and Pakistan. The 1973 constitution does not mention any such agreement. The aforementioned Articles 246 or 247 do not make any reference to it. Even if such an agreement existed, its legality would be highly questionable today. One also wonders how an agreement with the Wali-e-Swat would apply to Dir, Chitral, Amb, Malakand and Kohistan, as these areas were outside his domain.

The argument about the economic backwardness of Pata can be applied to most of Pakistan, with the exception of a few regions. The districts of Karak and Tank, for example, are not much better off than Pata. How about southern Punjab or Thar, where poverty is legend? These areas do pay taxes on business and personal income above a certain threshold.

It is time the whole of Pakistan was brought under one law. All lawful rights should be given to all people, but they should also be educated about their responsibilities. Those with vested interests in Pata want to contribute nothing to the exchequer but expect to continue to take a share of the money contributed by other Pakistanis.

Why should the people of Karak, Layyah or Khairpur continue subsidising Pata? It is conceded that some areas might contribute more and others less, but all should be brought under the tax net. If an area is hit by a calamity, the law can declare it tax-free for a time, subject to periodic review. The smuggling of vehicles is a crime. The practice should stop. How do the ordinary people of Pata benefit from the rich driving around in smuggled Land Cruisers?

Political parties across the board have once again proved that they cannot see beyond electoral politics. They are up in arms against the implementation of the Customs Act but have failed to convince us as to why the smuggling of motor vehicles or non-payment of duties on goods should continue. They have not been honest, even with their own constituents in the settled districts. They have not been forthright with the people in the settled districts that since no revenue is collected from Pata, their money is being spent there and it would be their next generations’ responsibility to repay the loans of the government.

The politicians, disappointingly, are also proving that they are incapable of taking tough decisions that might be unpopular with a segment of the population but are vital for the country in the long run. The provincial government agreed with the security forces in the apex committee but made a hasty retreat at the first hint of agitation. Instead, they should have used the media to explain that the extension of laws to Pata is a necessity. Electoral politics should not trump national interests. It is the future of the country that is at stake.

One could argue about some areas of Kohistan having some semblance of a tribal society, but that is certainly not true of Malakand, Chitral, Swat, Buner and Dir. The people of these areas are well assimilated in Pakistani society (Swat even celebrates Eid with the federal government). The president could abolish Pata, as he is authorised to do under Article 247 sub-clause 6. It is time to do away with Pata. The people of these regions should be given their due rights, at par with the rest of the country in all respects. The common people would welcome this if it were properly explained and implemented.

The writer is a former president of the Association of Pakistani Cardiologists of North America.

 

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