Ripan Kumar Biswas

TIMOTHY F. Geithner, who is now secretary of treasury under the Obama administration, had to pay more than $43,200 in back taxes and interest for underpayments from 2001 to 2004 to get clearance from the Senate Finance Committee to occupy the then President-elect Barack Obama’s choice for treasury secretary.

To meet the transparency of the US administration, Clinton’s foundation had to disclose the name of 205,000 donors worldwide before the Senate Foreign Committee confirmed Hilary R. Clinton as secretary of state. But Bangladeshis never receive such information or examples of inspiration from their country’s legislatures, executives, leaders, or politicians.

Thanks to an English daily newspaper for bringing up a report that says 42 out of 345 lawmakers in the parliament, both from the treasury and opposition bench, including three state ministers, have never paid any income tax, claiming they do not have taxable income while, according to National Board of Revenue (NBR), each of these lawmakers spent Tk.15 to Tk.20 lakh in the parliamentary election, and the limit of tax-free income in the country is 165,000 per year.

In addition, according to both the Election Commission and NBR, most of these parliamentarians have Tax Identification Numbers (TINs) but very few of them show up in the tax book while some parliamentarians never feel an obligation to have TINs, keeping their huge income secret.

Since its independence in 1971, Bangladesh has seen no examples of motivation from leaders of its different governments and non-governmental organizations. As democracy is defined as a government system where people control how the government operates, what laws it passes, and how things get done, they have every right to know how their elected legislature runs the country. To be respectful to the law in a democratic country, everyone, from a top-level executive to bottom-level worker, is bound to show his/her earnings and savings. It is meaningless to expect general people to be fair when the people at the top are not.

According to John Quincy Adams (July 11, 1767 – February 23, 1848), the 6th President of the United States, “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” Being a good leader means that he/she inspires others to follow his/her example. They are leading people to success and being responsible for their actions. In addition, a good leader inspires confidence and represents a strong example of what needs to be aimed for.

As we assume legislatures or top people are good leaders, they should have good characters, beliefs and values by which they can easily motivate others, but negative characteristics of a leader, or noted person, only convey the wrong message to the people.

Calling it as a charter for change, the present ruling government promised that powerful people must submit wealth statements annually. The same holds true for general citizens bound to do so in its five priority issues in the last election manifesto. Though it is politically motivated according to Awami League (AL), its party chief, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was detained on corruption charges and asked to submit her wealth statement voluntarily during the last caretaker government.

Her arch-rival, Begum Khaleda Zia, former premier of Bangladesh and the chairperson of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, forgot to mention her wealth accrued in 1980, 1981, 1982, 1986, 1987 and 1991, while she enjoyed the support of a huge office set-up during her tenure.

Taking bribes, hiding wealth reports, saving in or buying a house in a foreign country, are very common activities among Bangladeshi leaders, only because they have no legal obligation to give their financial status.

The White House published on April 15, 2009 the taxable income of the President and Mrs. Michelle Obama for the 2008 tax year as $855,323 in federal taxes and $78,000 in state taxes. The Obamas had $2.35 million in taxable income after taking deductions, which included his salary as a public servant to the US government and royalties from his two published books, Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope. A further look at President Barack Obama’s 2008 tax returns shows that $172,050 was donated to charities like CARE and United Negro College Fund.

The Bangladesh government has extended time for submitting income tax returns from September 30 to October 30 aiming to collect more tax. Presently, the country has 2.2 million TIN holders but only 0.67 of them pay income tax, says NBR. About 80% of companies do not pay income tax. The World Bank says Bangladesh’s tax-GDP (gross domestic product) ratio is among the lowest in South Asia, even lower than that of Nepal.

The income-tax-collection target has been fixed at $2.40 billion (BDT 165.60 billion) for the current fiscal year, 27% higher than last year’s target. In fiscal 2008-09, around 0.67 million taxpayers’ submitted tax returns involving $144.78 million (BDT 7.92 billion) out of 2.2 million TIN holders.

In a fresh move to make its services friendlier to taxpayers, the NBR and the British donor — Department for International Development (DFID) — will pick an international consultancy early next year to find a string of innovative solutions that can change the way the NBR functions now. Still, it always remains an uphill task for NBR to function independently and properly, as it regularly faces government interventions. Very often, it is used as political weapon.

It will be difficult to say how impartially the NBR worked during the last caretaker government, but no doubt, it was the vital weapon to send politicians, bureaucrats, legislatures, or business people behind bars. While the present high-profiled tax defaulters, including ministers, are out of legal proceedings, former AL secretary, Abdul Jalil was issued an arrest warrant in a case filed by NBR for dodging his income tax of $5,910. Clearly, the filing of the case and issuance of the arrest warrant against Jalil is an outcome of his recent derogatory statements about the party and ninth parliamentary elections.

No doubt, paying tax is a national obligation and a step to make the country financially secure. Policymakers, however, particularly those among the politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen, have responded very little thus far to bring about positive changes in this issue, as many of them are widely perceived to be involved in the process.

Setting a good example is not a “put-on.” It’s simply something that can positively motivate others. In exercise of its positive motivation, the present government should exercise transparency regarding tax paying and make it a legal obligation for everyone to give his/her wealth status to the government.

Ripan Kumar Biswas is based in New York.
E-mail: Ripan.Biswas@yahoo.com