ISLAMABAD/Lahore - Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government faced its first countrywide strike on Saturday, staged by the traders against the government decision of documenting the commercial activities and imposition of more taxes.

Traders claimed their strike was successful as most major markets in many cities across the country remained closed on Saturday. The strike was staged at stores, shopping malls and wholesale commodity markets, as well as restaurants and grocers.

In many cities, produce vendors kept their shops closed, which residents said made it hard to get fresh fruits and vegetables. Small shopfronts were also closed in commercial districts.

The strongest participation was in Punjab. But even there, most of the smaller markets situated in different localities remained open. In the country’s commercial hub, Karachi, division among retailers made the strike less effective.

The government seemed to be defying the pressure as it did not contact the traders representatives for listening to them.

Many ruling party leaders and government high ups termed the strike a failure, and alleged that pro-opposition traders’ organizations were resorting to such steps to please their masters.

Some citizens took to social media to vent their anger against the protesting traders. They said the traders were trying to blackmail the government for keeping the economy undocumented to avoid taxes on their income.

The Federal Board of Revenue (FBR) has also refused to accept the main demand of the traders to withdraw proposal of the CNIC-based invoicing for transactions which aims at better assessing their tax liability.

“The government did not back out on the CNIC condition that agitated the traders,” said an official of the FBR. Prime Minister Imran Khan has already rejected this demand of the traders, he added.

Earlier, FBR had held negotiations with the business community and discussed mainly two issues: the SRO 1125, and requirement of CNIC for sales tax.

The SRO 1125 is a law that deals with the zero-rating tax regime, whereby exporters pay zero tax but claim refunds from the government on certain items that are part of their costs.

The CNIC condition, on the other hand, is a sales tax law. It requires traders who purchase supplies or make sales of Rs50,000 or more to produce their CNICs while making the transactions so they can be registered with the FBR and brought into the tax net.

All Pakistan Traders Association President Ajmal Baloch in a media interaction said that FBR and government only held talks with chambers and avoided smaller traders. He urged the prime minister to bring in a ‘fixed tax system’ in the country.

“We are ready [for a fixed tax system]… This is a wrong impression that we [traders] are launching this strike on behalf of any political party,” he said, while claiming that the bureaucracy of the country has been [intentionally] failing the government and the Premier.

Strike scene in Lahore

Traders observed a strong shutter down strike in Lahore where all the key business centres like Liberty Market, The Mall, Hall Road, Ferozepur Road, Akbari Mandi, Brandreth Road, Paper Market, Azam Cloth Market, Shah Alam Market and others remained closed throughout the day.

Though Pakistan Chemists and Retailers Association had distanced itself from the other traders’ bodies and announced continuing business as per routine, Medicine Market Lohari remained closed on Saturday.

Smaller business centres in different localities, medical stores, LPG outlets, fruit and vegetable shops, fast food points and tobacco shops also continued business as per normal routine.

Leadership of traders’ organizations including All Pakistan Anjuman-e-Tajiran, Qaumi Tajir Ittehad and Pakistan Traders Alliance also set up camps at major markets, one of those outside the Punjab Assembly.

Talking to the media at a camp at Faisal Chowk, APAT General Secretary Naeem Mir said that imposition of “unjustified” 17 percent sales tax, turn over tax and CNIC-based invoicing system had made it impossible for the traders to continue businesses.

He warned the government of strike for an indefinite period if the said taxes and conditions were not withdrawn. He said traders were ready to pay taxes according to their income. He demanded of the government to simplify the tax system.

Mir warned that the traders would not submit income tax returns for the fiscal year 2018-19 if the government did not pay heed to their demands.

Terming the traders strike a referendum against the federal budget, he asked Prime Minister Imran Khan to intervene and resolve the issue after due consultation with the stakeholders.

Leaders of APAT Liberty Market said that the traders were ready to pay taxes provided there was a respectable approach. They said that traders would not allow extortion and continue struggle for their rights.

They urged the PM to change his economic team and initiate dialogue with real stakeholders. They claimed that taxes levied by bureaucracy on the direction of International Monetary Fund have broken the backbone of general public including traders. Under these circumstances, the government would not be able to achieve its revenue collection targets. They also threatened launching march on Islamabad to press for acceptance of demands.

Capital city

In Islamabad, a complete shutter-down strike was observed. Business activities remained fully or partially suspended in areas including Aapbara, G-10, F-11 Markaz, Farooqia Market, Melody Market, Jinnah Super and Sitara Market. However, few shops and restaurants remained open in the federal capital.

People have given mixed response over the shutter down strike. Most of them supported the strike by saying that government has made their life miserable through increasing taxes which have jacked up prices of commodities and utilities. However, there were some people who opposed the strike saying it added to their difficulties.

RAWALPINDI

Most of the traders’ unions on Saturday observed shutter down strike in Rawalpindi to register their protest. The markets and shopping malls were closed at Saddar, Kashmir Road, Haider Road, Police Station Road, City Saddar Road, Chick Bazaar, Hathi Chowk, Bank Road, Canning Road, Rashid Minhas Road, and Raja Bazaar.

Business also remained shut at Fawara Chowk, Iqbal road, Ganjmandi, Gawalmandi, Liquat Road, College Road, Murree Road, Committee Chowk, Commercial Market, Westridge Road, Allahabad, Peshawar Road, Faizabad And Shamasabad due to strike. However, business activities remained continue at Adiala Road, Lal Kurti, Chungi Number 22, Bakra Mandi, Dhoke Syedan Road, Tahli Mohri, Dheri Hassanabad, and Chakri Road.

Even on the city’s main fruit and Vegetable market in Raja Bazaar was closed while some stallholders established their stalls for selling fruit and vegetables in the main market.

Interestingly, the shops in and around Lal Haveli –political office of Railways Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed- also remained closed while the shopkeepers expressed their solidarity with the traders.

Medical stores and restaurants in the city - which were also asked to participate in the strike - were open for business. However, they erected tents around their outlets to avoid stone pelting. Overall the strike was remained peaceful. No incident of forced closure of the shops was reported.

Thin traffic was witnessed on the roads due to the closure of the markets in Rawalpindi and its twin city Islamabad.

Punjab Traders Association President Sharjeel Mir said that the traders gave the message loud and clear that they wanted an end to inflation and were against burdening the common man as well as the traders with new taxes.

He said that the new taxation system in the country would create problems for the people who are already burdened with high inflation. The product cost will escalate and the purchasing power of the people will reduce, he added.

Karachi

The port city witnessed a partial strike from traders despite hectic efforts from the ruling party-Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf - to persuade all the traders to not go for it.

The efforts from the Sindh Governor Imran Ismail, who nominated PTI lawmaker and Karachi leader Khurram Sher Zaman to persuade traders to not participate in the strike bore some fruit on Friday when umbrella group of traders organization- Karachi Tajir Action Committee (KTAC)- announced that it would not participate in the strike call.

However, key member of the organization-Karachi Electronic Dealers Association chief Rizwan Irfan- announced his dissent over the decision and vowed to continue with the strike call.

Zaman earlier expressed his confidence that traders will not be observing strike in the city during a hurriedly called press conference in the city late Friday night.

“We are in touch with all business community of the city and they have assured their cooperation in this regard,” he said adding that they would ensure that a meeting between FBR chairman and traders to make headways in talks.

On Saturday, major markets in business centres of the city including Saddar, Regal Market, Old City area, Tariq Road, Korangi Market, Electronics Market, Sarafa Bazaar, Clifton, Hyderi Market, Cooperative Market, Aurangzeb Market, Plaza Market, and Akbar Road Market remained closed on the strike call.

Markets in other parts of the city on the decision of KTAC continued their businesses and were also joined by the owners of the vehicle showrooms on New MA Jinnah Road, Khalid Bin Walid Road, and Sabzi Mandi.

The traders in Jodia Bazaar also kept their business open, while partial shutdown was witnessed in the wholesale medicine market in the city.

 

 

Govt stance

Law Minister Raja Basharat alleged that pro-opposition organisations had given the strike call. He said the failure of strike was a success of the PTI-led government. He said that people have expressed trust in the government which was determined to strengthen the national economy, badly damaged by the former two governments.

“We appreciate the patriot and sincere traders who rejected the call and supported the government for a noble cause. It shows that the nation has rose up to the call of PM Imran Khan who is making efforts to revive the dead economy by focusing on austerity and expanding tax net, said Raja Basharat.

Public has recognized those looters who transferred the money collected from the public in form of taxes abroad for purchasing large properties for their sons and daughters. Citizens are well aware that the present price hike is due to massive corruption during last ten years,” he added.

Basharat said that in the developed countries, all citizens pay taxes responsibly for which the government provides best civic facilities. But in Pakistan, he said, rich persons try to evade taxes that put the whole burden on small number of tax payers.

“We honour those citizens and traders who pay their taxes honestly and help the government. I hope the realistic policies of the government will bring economic stability in the country and resolve the prevailing problems,” he said.

Information Minister Syed Samsam Ali Bokhari said that PML-N wanted political confrontation at any cost. “Sharif family has got trapped in its own net,” he said, adding, the PML-N was backing the traders community for its own political motives.

He said that the government has already held negotiations with the traders and was ready to do so again.

Bokhari said the government has taken bold decisions for taking the country out of prevailing economic crises. He said that the steps of the PM were aimed at putting the country on the road to progress, prosperity and stability.