Towards a Fair and Just Fiscal Policy in Pakistan | Taxes

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Pakistan does not currently mobilize sufficient tax revenue to finance essential public services, including healthcare and education, on which the poor rely the most. Consequently, these services remain inadequate, hampering efforts to reduce poverty and address extreme inequalities. Furthermore, the current tax system in Pakistan is seen by many as unfair and inequitable. Two-thirds of tax revenue is mobilized through indirect taxes, which are regressive in nature and unfairly burden those least able to pay them. Against this backdrop, this paper explains the four basic elements necessary for a fair and just tax regime, which, if implemented, would strengthen the domestic revenue base, increase equity and improve overall development outcomes, as the public sector will have more resources at its disposal to spend on human and social well-being.
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  ISSUE BRIEFING 5 JUNE 2015 TOWARDS A FAIR AND JUST FISCAL POLICY IN PAKISTAN ‘ The impact of economic growth on the lives of people is partly a matter of income distribution, but it also depends greatly on the use that is made of the public revenue generated by economic expansion. ’   Drèze and Sen (2013) 1   Pakistan does not mobilize sufficient tax revenue required to finance essential public services, including healthcare and education, on which the poor rely the most. Consequently, these services remain inadequate, hampering efforts to reduce poverty and address extreme inequalities. Furthermore, the current tax system in Pakistan is characterized as unfair and inequitable. Two-thirds of tax revenue is mobilized through indirect taxation which is regressive in nature and unfairly burdens the poor and middle classes. 1 BACKGROUND There is an emerging concern that rising income and wealth inequalities in Pakistan are having social and economic costs including violence, political instability and social fragmentation. 2  There has also been a realization over time by experts, that fiscal policy in Pakistan has not been redistributive. 3  In 2014, total revenue generation by the public sector was around 9.8 percent of GDP, which is among the lowest in emerging economies. 4  The low level of domestic resource mobilization has three visible implications. First, essential public services, including basic education, health and clean drinking water  –  services which the poorest sections of society depend on the most  –  are under financed. Second, public debt is   2 increasing, caused by the government’s need to borrow both from internal and external sources to meet essential expenditure. 5  This has a knock-on effect in terms of the higher future tax burden. Thirdly, the government has had to resort to borrowing from the banking sector which leaves little for the private sector to borrow. 6   A large wealth portfolio, including real estate, remains untaxed, while the goal of a progressive taxation structure is undermined by current tax exemptions, high compliance costs and related tax evasion, and an overall tax framework that allows several agricultural and service sectors to slip through the tax net. According to the Federal Board of Revenue ’s  (FBR) own survey estimates, the tax gap, representing those transactions not being taxed, stands at 79 percent. 7  Provincial governments have also struggled to increase their tax revenues. They currently only contribute 6.5 percent to the consolidated tax revenues in Pakistan.  Against this backdrop, this paper explains the four basic elements necessary for a fair and just tax regime, which, if implemented, would strengthen the domestic revenue base, increase equity and improve overall development outcomes, as the public sector will have more resources at its disposal to spend on human and social well-being. 2 BROADENING THE (DIRECT) TAX BASE The difficulties in expanding the direct tax base partially come from the exemptions granted to commodity producing sectors and from an increased reliance on withholding taxes (WHT), which are particularly burdensome for small enterprises. 8  The WHT results in higher prices of goods and services which are passed on to the end consumers. The increased cost of compliance also keeps a significant proportion of small enterprises from entering the formal, documented economy. There are varying estimates as to the size of the shadow or undocumented economy in Pakistan; 9  however, there is a consensus among experts that this segment of the economy is on the rise. 10  Pakistan currently has less than a million voluntary tax return filers. 11  Sustainable Development Policy Institute ’s  (SDPI) household survey conducted in 2013 revealed that 71 percent of eligible taxpayers did not pay because of a lack of faith that tax revenue will be utilized correctly and weak administration. The respondents also revealed giving informal gifts to tax officials for: curtailing intrusion and harassment (40 percent), reducing time towards tax compliance (29 percent), and preventing arbitrary evaluations and levies (37 percent). 12  The absence of robust tax audits, the multiplicity of taxes, the difficulties in calculating tax liability, a lack of adequate incentives to file taxes and the poor relationship between taxpayer and payee are key reasons why levels of tax evasion are so high in Pakistan. 13  This also reflects an erosion of the social contract between citizens and the state. The latter has not been able to show that tax money is being spent on people’s welfare.   3 The corporate sector uses aggressive tax avoidance strategies; in the overall tax gap identified by Ahmed and Rider (2013) almost 25 percent can be attributed to the corporate sector. 14  Kemal (2010) notes how corporate entities show a large part of their incomes coming from agriculture and other exempted or zero-rated sectors. 15  The loopholes in tax policy allow businesses to claim tax exemptions against activities which are falsely classified as corporate social responsibility. 16  In the future, the use of ICT tools, biometric information and a data warehouse that links banking information with the NADRA’s database could help the tax authorities to earn revenue from untapped sources. Provincial governments also have an opportunity to improve the valuation of real estate, capital gains, the rental value of property and assets, and to bring them into an effective tax regime. Following the enactment of the 18 th  Constitutional Amendment, public service delivery in social sectors is the responsibility of the provincial governments. Therefore as their revenue authorities begin to demand statutory taxes, it is important that citizens are informed regarding the efficiency with which government resources are spent. This may be one of the ways to restore tax payers’ confidence. 3 REDUCTION IN INDIRECT TAXES  A recent study carried out by the Lahore University of Management Sciences and Oxfam on inequality in Pakistan indicates that around 60 percent of FBR revenues come from indirect taxes, which are regressive in nature. The current tax regime effectively increases the disposable income of the rich, while simultaneously pushing the disposable incomes of the poor downwards. 17  The report also explains that inequalities could be mitigated through: a) phasing out federal excise duty; b) simplifying and gradually reducing the rates of general sales tax (GST); and c) further lowering customs duties and reducing the tariff slabs. 18  Tax incidence studies from Pakistan also suggest that reducing indirect taxation has a pro-welfare impact. 19  For immediate relief to poor and lower-middle-income groups, food and fuel items widely used by poor groups should be exempted from sales tax, including cooking oil, bread, milk, vegetables, fruits, tea and sugar.  An ongoing concern is that there are three provincial governments 20  which have enacted the GST on Services Act. Independent studies have pointed out that as a result of this legislation there is a double taxation on several services, as the Federal Government has been slow in withdrawing from its jurisdiction. 21  At least two provinces have also imposed their own forms of excise and regulatory duties. This multiplicity of taxes is further contributing to the regressivity of the overall tax framework. The Tax Reforms Commission, established by the federal government in September 2014, has already noted (in the case of indirect taxes) the existence of smuggling, fake invoices, under invoicing, illegal adjustments and delays in tax refunds. These issues are leading to   4 higher transactions costs for formal businesses, which are being passed on to clients, ultimately leading to a loss of consumer welfare. 22  There are case studies from other economies where governments have bridged the revenue gap arising from a reduction in indirect taxes through broadening of direct tax base. A key example comes from Turkey which was able to double its tax-to-GDP ratio between 1995 and 2006, while also achieving a reduction in share of indirect taxation. In 2002 the Turkish Government abolished 16 indirect taxes and introduced a special consumption tax which was levied on items most consumed by higher income groups. Taxes on wealth, such as property, inheritance and high-value gifts, were increased. An environmental tax was imposed in order to finance expenditure in social sectors. 4 EQUAL TAX CONTRIBUTIONS BY ALL SECTORS Under a fair tax system all sectors pay their due share of taxes according to their contribution towards national income; however, under the current system, some economic sectors pay more tax than others. Currently the industrial sector is taxed disproportionately high in comparison to agriculture and service sectors. The various exemptions allowed to agriculture and some other sectors should be revisited. New sub-sectors of the service industry, such as private educational institutions, IT establishments and electronic media outlets, should also be considered for sharing tax burden. The prevalence of exemptions is one of the contributing factors to the low tax-to-GDP ratio. And where exemptions and concessions are granted to certain sectors and organizations, the benefits have not been passed to the end consumer. 23  The overall exemptions in 2013-14 were reported to be PKR 477 billion, equivalent to two percent of GDP (Figure 1). In 2014, sales tax exemptions (PKR 211billion) and customs duty exemptions (PKR 131 billion) also increased against the previous year. 24  The gradual removal of exemptions allowed to large-scale operators in the agriculture and livestock sector could provide an additional PKR 115 billion to the government. Figure 1: Exemptions from indirect taxes (PKR billions) Source: Multiple Inequalities and Policies to Mitigate Inequality Traps in Pakistan, Oxfam and LUMS 25   0 100 200 300 400 500 600 477.1
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