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The tax ombudsman


A government depends on its citizens to run the administration. It needs not only the loyalty and support of the citizens but also the revenues to meet the day-to-day expenditures of its administrative juggernaut. Regrettably though, the government has often to exhort the people so that they may pay taxes to it regularly, which is their duty towards the state. But these are about the duties of a citizen towards the state as written in the book. And there is not a single citizen in this country who does not know this basic truth about the duties and rights of a citizen. But when it comes to practice, it is seen that the people are no more keen to go by the book. That is why, the finance minister often reminds the people of their fundamental duty towards the state as taxpayers. Small wonder that more often than not the government's revenue earning target fails to achieve the desired level of success. How should one then explain this strange behaviour of the people, who are otherwise very dutiful and do have understanding about their roles as responsible citizens of an independent country?
The pattern of argument may well tempt one to hold the public in general responsible in a wholesale fashion for such a state of affairs. But if one looks at the problem more closely, it will be found that it is again the government, not the people in general, that has miserably failed to mobilise tax administration to collect the revenue. The common citizens are always too eager to help the state in everyway and they hardly ever ask anything in return. If anything, whatever they may ask is nothing out of the ordinary -- they want to live and work in peace so that they may continue to support the government morally and otherwise.
But the irony is, it is the government that consistently fails to meet this very ordinary need of the common people. In the tax administration, too, the failure is glaring. Which is why the government had long been mulling over the prospect of appointing a Tax Ombudsman with a view to making the revenue department more efficient. The multilateral donors, especially, the World Bank, too, had long been pressuring the government to appoint the tax ombudsman. The World Bank is so keen on the issue that it has even suspended the disbursement of the third tranche of the Development Credit Support (DSC) -- amounting to $200 million during the last two months -- for the government's failure to appoint a tax ombudsman in time.
But it is one thing to add one more department to the existing legions of others under the state, while it is another to run that new organ effectively. Our experience is not very savoury with another statutory organ of the state to curb corruption, the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC). The lesson from the ACC is that only a mere wish and a half-hearted approach are not enough to materialise a mission, however great its goals are. The inbuilt system of corruption in the administration always comes in the way of any good move to get rid of this scourge of the nation.
The revenue department is itself another den of inequity in the administration. The finance minister, though he is yet to be lucky to get a competent person to fill the post of tax ombudsman, has pledged to appoint one after the Eid all the same. Will even the most competent person be able to right the wrong so deeply ensconced in the revenue administration of the government? Will the vested quarters give in so easily and happily submit to the new boss? So, first of all, the government must clear the decks for the tax ombudsman before he may start his job without fear or favour.