November Issue 2009
Death and Taxes
US Senator John Kerry and I share a problem: difficulty in giving money to the Government of Pakistan (GoP).
Late last month, after another frustrating round of listening to Pakistani officials complain about the Kerry-Lugar-Berman Bill, the lanky US senator said that never before had he had “so much difficulty in trying to give away $7.5 billion.”
I don’t have billions to give the government — I don’t have billions of anything, except perhaps neuroticisms — but still I owed them a few thousand rupees in taxes.
On September 30, officially the last day to pay taxes, I reach the NBP branch in Clifton. It’s past noon. The queue at the special tax counter (outside and at the side of a secondary backyard building) is about 40-men long. After 25 minutes, the line has not budged. Murmurs say the system is down. At this rate, I calculate, I will be here forever.
The afternoon before I was sitting in my accountant’s office. “Go in the morning. If you don’t pay tomorrow, you’ll face a penalty,” he told me. That’s good advice, I thought. Penalties are bad. I enquired about the blank National Tax Number (NTN) on my form. “Pay under your NIC. No problem,” he said. I left thinking I was halfway done.
From the lineup, I call my accountant, looking to weigh my options. “How much is that penalty?” I ask. He doesn’t answer. But he makes this point: “Why would you even consider paying a penalty?” To him I must be a fool. In a land of tax cheats and cheap labour, I willingly pay my taxes, queue up myself and find the option of giving extra to the government appealing.
I start thinking like a local: How do I jump the queue? I call a friend of my parents, an executive at the NBP. It works. Once the system comes back online, I am escorted through the back door. “Where is your NTN number?” says the man behind the computer. Excuse me? “You need an NTN number.” I’ll pay under my NIC. “No. Need NTN.”
I phone my accountant again. “Come in and see me,” he says. Good. He’s going to sort this out.
Wrong. I get to his office just so one of his staff can give me directions to the Regional Tax Office in Saddar. When I reach the tax office and ask for assistance, I’m given preferential treatment. Security guard A, hearing me speak in broken Urdu, calls out to security guard B, who knows some English. “Follow me,” B says. He doesn’t just take me to the help counter, he takes me behind it. He grabs two chairs and a tax office employee, and puts us together. “He’ll help you,” he says. Unexpected service.
My forced labour does a once over of my tax forms. “No,” I hear again. The NTN number is necessary. He urges me to apply for an extension, get it stamped, and then apply for a new NTN. I call my accountant again. He advises me to go to the help counter. Good advice. My forced labour talks me through the process. His instructions aren’t perfect. I end up talking to seven people at four different counters to do three things. The young man behind the last counter I visit files for a NTN online for me. More unexpected service. I’ll get a confirmation email and I can check my status online, he says. It should take about seven days. I’m convinced I’m on the right track now.
Fifteen days later, I know nothing about the status of my NTN. I’ve received no more emails and the link to check my application (that connects to the website pral.com.pk) doesn’t work.
The whole process is, for want of a better word, stupid. Why does the federal government insist on a NTN number? We already have unique NIC numbers. Islamabad controls both departments (NADRA and FBR), and so it is not as if one area is under provincial jurisdiction. Look abroad. In Canada, people have a Social Insurance Number (SIN). This nine-digit number is perhaps the most important piece of identification a Canadian owns. Like the NIC, the SIN is the all-powerful ID card used to open a bank account, apply for a passport and get a job. Guess what else Canadians use the number for: paying taxes. In Pakistan, though, millions in taxpayer money are instead wasted on generating and managing unnecessary national tax numbers.
When on October 17, I return to the tax office, hoping to collect my new NTN, I am told, “We haven’t received it yet.” I head inside to the guy who helped me file for my NTN online. He’ll remember me. He spent 25 minutes the other day speaking in English and being terribly accomodating. Now, he hardly acknowledges me and speaks only in Urdu. “Go there,” he says, pointing behind him to the window outside. I just came from there. They don’t have it. You said it would take seven days. It’s been 17. He takes the application from my hand. After a few keystrokes, he discovers my NTN’s been issued. “Use this.” He writes the number down, taking it straight from the FBR database. I can use it now? “Yes.”
I head over to the NBP branch across the foyer to pay. I’m almost done, I think. But the bank’s security guard stands behind the glass doors shooing people away as if they were dirty pigeons. I check the time. It is 1:12 p.m. The posted bank hours for Saturday read, open until 1:30pm. Three days before the tax deadline and the bank is closing early.
Why is the NBP the only bank set up to take tax payments? Why can’t I go to my own bank and pay directly from my account? The government has failed to modernise the system and thus during tax season it only uses a fraction of the banking infrastructure available to it; private bank branches are neither used to reduce the burden on the NBP nor the amount of time the nation wastes queuing up.
The online system for issuing new NTNs doesn’t work either. I applied on September 30, and as I write this 25 days later, I have yet to get confirmation of my new NTN. I can’t check my status online and the system is only half-computerised: apply online, but go in person to pick up the number that is manually filed in paper form. Hello, FBR? You took my email address, sent me a confirmation, and so why not email me that bureaucratic seven-digit bottleneck?
It’s Monday, the day before the new deadline. As I have unofficially picked up my NTN, I return to the NBP in Clifton, the branch I first visited three weeks earlier. It’s 11 a.m. The lineup is short. My turn comes in 20 minutes. I hand over my completed tax forms with my nice new NTN number. The teller types it in. I’m almost done, I think.
“This NTN is not valid.” I have visions of the tax office and another wasted afternoon. But it’s new, I say. I just received it. He checks again. No luck. “Do you want to pay using your NIC?” My head spins. I can do that? “Yes.” He stretches his hand towards me, signalling for the money.
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