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We seem to have no understanding of what ails our taxation system

I never wanted to write the following article for the simple reason that there isn’t anything good to present. However, I am forced to write because there is so much disinformation, misperception and constant abuse of the word ‘reform’ of tax collection in Pakistan that one must present certain ground realities to people. In my view, the biggest stakeholders in this state being the people of Pakistan, who are around 85-95 percent of the population that are deprived of primary justice ingrained in constitution of every state. This is Part-1 of the series. In the subsequent parts I will present some solutions to suggest how to get out of this mess.

The conclusion of this article is that there is effectively no ‘direct tax’ on income in Pakistan, except in a very few cases. It would amount to less than Rs 50 to 75 billion out of total collection of over Rs 4,000 billion in 2020-2021. For the sake of vested interests ‘smoke screens’ are created to confuse the stakeholders that now includes the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The system is simple and straight. Whatever is collected constitutes collection from consumers, essentially from the poor by way of indirect taxes or disguised direct taxes that are actually indirect taxes. The persons responsible for perpetuation of this state of affairs are people like us and the academia who are not asking the right questions. Everything and every word is politicized. We are PTI, PPP, PML-N, MQM, but not Pakistanis in such matters. On this subject, there is a ‘United Front’ whose only slogan is ‘status quo’ and a demand for more smoke screens. In the following paragraphs, at the cost of many risks, I have tried to filter through these smoke screens to dissect the total collection of taxes in Pakistan to let people know who is paying taxes and on what. And who is not paying and just passing it through to consumer like, for instance, an ordinary commercial importer. It is time to consolidate instead of creating further opportunities for mafias that have virtually invaded this country. If we do not correct at this stage and maintain the status quo then our future generations will question us for many crimes.

The information laid down in the following paragraphs is accurate to the best of my understanding and I have worked very hard to gather it. There may be errors, however, it is my firm understanding that the primary data is correct. It will be a service to the nation if in case of inaccuracy, the data is challenged as that would assist in refining the thought process. The conclusion of discussions in the following paragraphs before any further dilation is as under:

1. Pakistan’s total tax collection is largely and fundamentally based on the value of imports made by the country. Depreciation of rupee is a bonus/increment to tax as we collect more than in rupees on the same value of imports. This collection has no relation with efforts and administration of FBR. The main collection depends upon the value of imports, USD parity and withholding rates. This will be proved by facts for the past five years.

2. On the domestic side, around 70 percent of tax is collected as ‘withholding’ or voluntary paid as ‘advance tax’ without any effort by the tax administration.

3. There is effectively no ‘direct tax’ on income earned by various persons such as importers, wholesalers, retailers and agriculturists as tax collection other than imports and that collected at source is around equal to 90 percent of taxes collected. Accordingly, in Pakistan, tax planning is nothing but to arrange a business in the manner that there is no withholding. This has led to de-incorporatization of businesses. This is the biggest disservice done to this country; Pakistan is going in the reverse direction.

4. The aforesaid structure, as designed above, is not the result of an error or omission. It is the result of a concerted policy designed to suit the rulers who included Ziaul Haq and Nawaz Sharif. However, I have no hesitation in stating that General Musharraf (retd), Asif Ali Zardari and even the incumbent government have not been so aggressive to rectify as mafias in favour of status quo are too strong to resist. This article has been written to narrate the facts which few people would like to discuss. Nevertheless, I am confident that nobody in Pakistan or elsewhere can challenge any of the assertions made in this article. Whether or not it is self-assessment scheme designed by Dr Mahbubul Haque in the 1980s and presumptive taxation of Dr Hafiz A. Pasha in the 1990s and the Protection of Economic Reform Act (PERA) of 1992 of Ishaq Dar in the 1990s or the decision in the Elahi Cotton Mills case by the Supreme Court there cannot be any escape from an aggressive historical analysis. In my view, all these actions had negative effects on Pakistan’s taxation system. However, this is my considered opinion.

5. In my capacity as Chairman of Federal Board of Revenue (FBR) I tried to bring in some fundamental changes but I failed due to my personal shortcomings. Nevertheless, it is my duty to highlight the issues in a manner that the country is placed on the right path;

6. This fiscal policy supported by a weird foreign exchange regime led to the legalised cash outflow of dollars from Pakistan. This has partly stopped due to changes in the PERA; however, there have to be more transparent fiscal and foreign exchange policies. Foreign Exchange laws need a complete revamp.

It is my duty to state my conviction that Pakistan as a country that is not only facing the issue of personal corruption but also of intellectual corruption. The personal corruption is the result of policies and intellectual corruption where people are not ready to discuss facts and ground realities about the manner in which this tax system has been designed. Under this system, the rich are getting richer and the whole tax burden is passed on to the common man by way of indirect taxes. There is no distributional equity. This means justice is not there. Societies can survive in the presence of infidelities but they cannot survive in the absence of justice. We are facing the same.

Over time, Pakistan has developed an erroneous tax culture on the policy side. It will take time to rectify it and that will only happen if there is a concerted effort to identify the intellectual corruption and a national consensus developed to have a ‘direct across the board income’ based taxation on all income including agricultural income with substantial reduction in the rate of indirect taxes. I am in agreement with the IMF but with serious differences on certain policy measures. There is a need for a fundamental correction for which they are not focused as they should be. The question is whether we are trying to rescue a patient of cancer with Aspirin.


Total collection during the last five years


Tax Year Collection (Rupees in billion)


2015-2016 3,113

2016-2017 3,368

2017-2018 3,844

2018-2019 3,829

2019-2021 3,997

2020-2021 (July-April) 3,781


Import-based taxation

Out of the total collection as referred above, now we turn to taxes collected at ‘import stage’ at ports. It is always over 45% of total collection as will be demonstrated in the following paragraphs. This is one of the highest in the world and is conceptually wrong. Almost 90 percent of the same is collected at the two ports of Karachi and in the last 40 years, Karachi has been completely destroyed on the infrastructure side not realising that easy flow of goods from Karachi is the backbone of this country. Political differences have been part of national disaster. This is certainly a separate subject.


The table will be further analysed in the following paragraphs.


Year / USD Value Pakistan Effective Tax Tax

Period of Import Rupee Exchange Collection Collection

(billion Value of rate at Import as a

USD) Imports in stage: percentage

Pakistan Income tax, of total

sales tax, value of

FED and imports


(Rupees in



2015-2016 45 4722 105 1282 27.2%

2016-2017 53 5584 105 1431 25.6%

2017-2018 61 6750 110 1691 25.1%

2018-2019 55 7499 135 1747 23.3%

2019-2020 44 7057 160 1755 24.9%


(July-April) 45 7222 160 1726 23.9%


The aforesaid table reveals everything about Pakistan’s economy in the last five years. The last year of PML being 2018 was very bad from the current account balance side, however if they boast about tax collection then they should read what is written in the following paragraphs. These are facts not assertions.

It will remain so if we do not change the paradigm. This table is more than enough to identify almost 50 % of the tax collection of Pakistan. The average collection for every Rupee value of import is around 25% of the value of import and composition of the same is as under:


• Income Tax 2.5%

• Sales Tax 12.8%

• FED 0.3%

• Customs 8.3%


This makes under-invoicing, smuggling and postings at Customs very lucrative. The question is the change that has to be made. The answer is that such collection should not be more than 10% in any case. Nevertheless this is not the subject here.


The aforesaid table is further classified for clarity as under:


Tax year Income tax Sales Tax FED Customs Total


2015-2016 177 692 13 401 1282

2016-2017 194 729 12 497 1431

2017-2018 217 853 13 608 1691

2018-2019 223 826 13 686 1747

2019-2020 206 913 12 624 1755

2020-2021 179 927 18 602 1726



As can be seen, average tax collection at import stage is hovering between 25 and 23%; however, no government can take the risk of decreasing the same as this is the main revenue source. This is no tax; it is effectively duties at the import stage which is totally inflationary and being transferred to consumers. It makes smuggling and under invoicing highly lucrative. This is what the game is. Import-based economy seeking USD after every five to ten years from aid or grant and transfers own non tax paid earnings outside Pakistan. This is quite simple and well designed. I have no objection to what is being done; however my problem lies with misstatements about the well-being of the poor, expansion in tax base and perverted nationalism.

The most important aspect of the aforesaid collection is that over the last five years and even before, the tax collection in real terms has decreased, not increased. It is the decrease in the value of Rupee against USD and almost constant and increasing value of import that has given us an increase in tax in rupee terms. This can be further clarified if we compare the year 2015-2016 with the year 2019-2021. The USD value of import has actually decreased by I billion USD and the effective tax rate at import stage has gone down from 27% to 25%; however, in rupee terms, the tax collection has increased by Rs 473 billion (1755-1282=473). This is where we have increased tax collection. I wonder who deserves the credit for this Rs 500 billion.

The question is whether Pakistan can get out of this ‘import based inflationary tax trap’ and the falsification of the assumed increase in tax collected that we see every year. In my view, there is complete misperception about the increase in the tax collection over the past years. The present government has taken a very correct and bold step to reduce the value of imports from USD 61 billion in 2017-2018 to around USD 50 billion that directly reduces the tax collection. They have got the cover by decrease in rupee parity, otherwise there would have been a decrease in tax collection by over Rs 400 billion.

In Pakistan, an increase in import and a decrease in rupee parity is a ‘blessing’ for the FBR whereas the same is a curse for the country otherwise. Who will decide that balance. This fundamental mismatch has to be handled. Let me reiterate that we do not see serious efforts in settling this primary issue of taxation. Incidence at the rate of 25% at import stage is ‘hazardous’ for the country from an inflationary viewpoint as well as corruption as such a high rate provides incentives for avoidance and evasion. It can be well imagined how lucrative an import trade can be if someone is ready to evade 25% collection at import stage or under-invoice the product to a manageable extent. This is what is being done. Mafias are protecting them.

Whilst I was Chairman FBR there was a constant fight between Customs Department and IRS departments as both wanted to take the collection at import stage to their credit. This reveals one part of the story about the fact for the persons who pay taxes in Pakistan on every product that is purchased from cooking oil, sugar, tea etc. The answer is that very few pay on a ‘net income basis’. In ‘Mumlikat Khudadad Pakistan’, there are economic reasons why smuggling is so lucrative and under-invoicing is so rampant.

Income tax collection

The story of income tax collection is even more discouraging. The facts described in the following paragraphs ranging for over five year disclose the status which is evident.


Tax year Imports Witholding Demand With Advance Others Total Share of

under 148 excluding under returns Tax under withholding

imports section Section tax %

137 147


2015-2016 177 611 64 37 286 30 1205 65.4%

2016-2017 194 694 71 44 309 33 1344 66%

2017-2018 217 781 76 37 304 122 1537 64.9%

2018-2019 223 705 58 38 325 97 1446 64.2%

2019-2020 206 857 42 39 318 60 1523 69.8


Two elements are very clear from the above table. Around 65-70 % of domestic collection is through ‘withholding taxes’. If these withholding provisions are taken out then collection will go down substantially.

Furthermore, the exact composition of withholding which is under ‘presumptive basis’ is not known, however it is my estimate that it exceeds over 60% of the total. This shows that out of the total local collection say Rs 1600 billion at least Rs 400 to 500 billion is presumed as ‘direct tax’ however the same is an indirect tax. This is an intellectual crime validated by the Supreme Court of Pakistan in the case of Elahi Cotton Mills Limited.

If we further go deep down in the ‘taxes collected through demand’ being the process where taxation officers and the field force of over 20,000 persons is involved then it is revealed that not even Rs 50 billion is realized by them from no corporates as the bulk is collected from large companies and the organized sector. This all proves without any doubt that there is no direct taxation on income in Pakistan on any business in the manner it should have been. They have got National Tax Numbers and stories of ‘harassment’ (which are true in many instances) however, for the government at large there is nothing on the table. It ends up in other pockets. This status quo has to be broken.

Now on the basis of the aforesaid facts total tax collection, domestic and at import stage is recomposed as under:

Syed Shabbar Zaidi, "We seem to have no understanding of what ails our taxation system," Business Recorder. 2021-06-02.
Keywords: Economics , Economic growth , Economic zones , Taxation system , Sales tax , Economic reasons , Pakistan , USD

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