To be taxed or not to be taxed is a question of acute importance for the people of Gilgit-Baltistan (GB). The issue permeates through various spheres of socio-political existence that has so far been trapped in a void by the deliberate refusal of successive Pakistani administrations to recognize the region as one of its legitimate parts. Instead of wining their own freedom independently in 1947, the free will of the people of GB has been condemned to suppression into the litterbin of Kashmir issue that sees no ending to its indigence.
Governance is a tricky game and the Pakistani governments as well as mainstream politicians have repeatedly failed badly to impress and satisfy the people of GB. What should have been a thorough process of political and constitutional integration of the region has turned into a purgatory full of confusion, chaos and mistrust. Instead of fostering a capable governance system in the region, an adhoc, powerless and pseudo political arrangement is placed on a meek edifice that is made to dangle at the whims of federal establishment. What should have been a spontaneous progression of social cohesion and harmony has turned into the malice of hatred, violence and aggression. Any process of indigenous political congealing is thwarted by devious instruments of sectarian violence. An extraordinary remedial surgery of these excruciating issues is long overdue. The foundation of relationship between Pakistan and the region of GB is in severe need of a fresh perspective. As a first step, the irrelevant and utterly flawed Kashmir-centric policy narrative for Gilgit-Baltistan needs to be put to rest in graveyard paving way to the birth of a newer policy narrative revolving genuinely around the aspirations and wellbeing of the people of the region. It is equally important to obliterate the presence of ghostly stakeholders from the equation of future of Gilgit-Baltistan.
Any modern governance system in a nutshell is characterised by the principal responsibility of re-distribution of income and wealth in the society. It does so through collection of taxes from the people; it pools these resources and devises policies to spend on projects which benefit the society as a whole. The implementation of any sort of tax regime is thus unthinkable without the necessary political and social space. A tax collecting government has to win the trust of its taxpayers by establishing the relationship of give and take. The taxpayers are justified in demanding the rights and privileges in return for the taxes they pay. If the government has nothing to offer then reluctance to pay taxes is only but natural and humane. So far, the people of GB are spoon fed with an annual grant of a few billions in return for relinquishing royalties and rights on their own resources nullifying the governance and political structure in the region. This by any proportions is a huge price to pay which can no longer be sustained.
Amid the socio-political environment prevalent in GB, the imposition of taxes seems to be very unpopular. The demand for paying direct taxes is illegitimate on constitutional and political grounds. Taxation is subject to the constitutional and political emancipation of the people of GB, though the region is subject to inescapable indirect federal taxes. Prequel to taxation is the mollification of grievances of the people through a constitutional amendment by elevating status of the region up to a province. This can only be achieved if Pakistani political parties gather enough courage and will to build consensus on the issue and vote in favour of the bill in houses of parliament. It should be the fundamental and moral responsibility of public representatives of GB to do lobbying for the rights of people at national as well as international levels. These public representatives should engage the incumbent and future leaders of Pakistan for the resolution of long standing issues of the region in a mutually collaborative and conducive manner. The strength of the indigenous political voices has to play pivotal role in order to get the message across loud and clear.
It is equally important to break the begging bowl as to get the legitimate rights. But in absence of an empowered and competent governance structure in Gilgit-Baltistan, the foundations of a vibrant and functional economy can never be laid down. To be entrusted with the helms of the affair, the local government needs to run an independent fiscal and economic policy in the region which is not possible before solving the constitutional paradox. The imposition of a fully blown tax regime in GB should therefore be put in abeyance until the time the fundamental issues of constitutional and political nature are addressed to the satisfaction of the sentiments of the locals. The need is to take concrete steps towards the self-realization and self-actualization of the people while working in the longer run on potential avenues of self-reliance and fiscal autonomy including the ownership of resource royalties and collection of tax revenues in Gilgit-Baltistan.
Hailing from Gilgit Baltistan, the writer is a PJD Wiles scholar of London School of Economics and Political Science where he studied Economics and Social Policy. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org