Happy returns

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THE news has some mystery about it, yet the pull is just too strong to not attract comment. According to a story doing the rounds, Lahore boasts 244,188 income tax payers in its midst, in a population of more than 11 million. Only the authors of the report, that is available on the internet, see us the people of Lahore in a negative light.

Also, whereas they say that they have got the figures on the authority of a minister speaking in the Senate, it is this site’s exclusive: no other publication seems to have reported the news, which is surprising, although the other night a television anchor mentioned the figure in his talk show.

Could this statement that ‘only’ 244,188 people in Lahore paid their taxes in 2018 be true? A request to some officials of the Lahore Chamber of Commerce and Industry was part of an effort to confirm the info. The folks at the LCCI were quick to send in their response — a message that contained the same 244,188 figure quoted from the same news item that had got us curious and excited and sent us on our corroboration mission.

The news, apart from having some significance for the overworked economists always weighed down by figures, had other uses. Not least, it smacked of the bias we the innocent inhabitants of Lahore are treated with. The authors of the report were quick to link the number that they had stumbled upon with the “gloomy state of Pakistan’s economy”. The data, as per the report, was provided in the Senate by a minister.

No less than 33 of the top taxpayers were from Karachi. Only six of the richest people from Lahore made it to the list.

By way of some extra padding, the report cited the figures from previous years. It said that in 2007, “the number of taxpayers in Lahore were 129,676 whereas in 2017, it stood at 267,124 but it registered a dip last year” — ending up at 244,188. That came to “less than two per cent of the total population”.

To cast an effective image of the affluence of the city that has always had more than its share of envious onlookers, the report next goes about referring to just how many cars — 2m — and motorcycles — 4m — are registered in Lahore. Not just that, also finding an honourable mention are some of the posh localities here: Model Town, Garden Town, Faisal Town (seriously?), Johar Town (really?), Shadman and Bahria Town. And if the categorisation missed the more prominent tax filers of the town by a few kilometres, the eight phases of the grand Defence Housing Authority (DHA) are highlighted for supposedly harbouring many who should have been on the list.

The news story ends with Tariq Ali’s famous line from Can Pakistan Survive? It goes: “…can Pakistan survive wherein the governments have miserably failed to expand the tax network and mostly the salaried class has to bear all the burden. Whereas others seem to be virtually exempted from paying taxes.”

Nice thoughts, janab. But why did you have to be so negative about us to drive home your point? In fact, this was a classic case where a more sympathetic rendering of the numbers could have turned it into a happy story about a rare positive occurrence in our midst. I always thought that only a few thousand paid their taxes in Lahore.

Suppose we were to play the dull accountant. The number we have got here is 244,188. We have been frequently told, not least by the prime minister himself, that the country has only 1.7m taxpayers who are carrying the burden of the entire Pakistani population of 220m. Others clarify that these 1.7m people are actually those who filed returns and there may be years when these filers weren’t required to pay any money in taxes. The actual number of taxpayers in the country could well be just over 1m. Now to have 244,188 out of 1.7m or 1m Pakistanis should lend to our walk in Lahore some swagger of the honest and the vindicated.

This feels so much better after setbacks, the more recent among them provided by a Federal Board of Revenue list of those who paid the highest amount in tax on their incomes during 2017-18. No less than 33 of the top taxpayers were from Karachi. Only six of the richest people from Lahore made it to the list, leading to murmurs that, despite their reputation, there were a few things the wealthy Lahoris didn’t want to be known and complimented for.

Let’s flaunt these numbers a little bit more. Suppose we were to divide 244,188 into households, conservatively, comprising five people, presuming that the head of this household pays and/or files taxes. It comes to 48,837 households or families. Now bring into the equation the total population of Lahore, which as per the last census is 11,126,285. Following the formula that this total was divided in families of five, you will have more than 2.2m households.

You may say that all this jugglery with the numbers brings us to naught since 48,837 households paying taxes out of a total of more than 2.2m is nothing. True, many of these hypothetical five-people units may have more than one tax filer, though the task of filing returns is the bane of the salaried workers. But you will be guilty of spoiling a blue-moon moment of ecstasy if you were to ignore the real pleasure one can draw from knowing that there are, reportedly, 244,188 souls and an estimated more than 48,000 households that actually either pay their taxes or file returns — higher than the national average of taxpayers.

Let us hope no one ruins it all with the revelation that the story the much-wanted happy narrative is based on has got it all wrong. This is such a relief to us the salaried people who have long been playing the victim. It is good to know that the number of those who have been caught up in this selective casting of the tax net in your city runs into lakhs.