South Asia

Amazing success of Bangladesh's tax 'funfairs'

Image caption People voluntarily queued for hours at the income tax funfairs to pay up, many for the first time

Two special fairs held this week in Bangladesh have proved hugely popular, but they are not for thrill-seekers.

The people who have voluntarily queued for hours at the events want to start paying income tax - in a country where hardly anyone ever does.

And the revenue-starved authorities are stunned by the idea's success, finds the BBC's Ethirajan Anbarasan in Dhaka.

It was a not-so-fun-sounding fair, but the response was overwhelming.

In a country where fewer than 2% of the people pay income tax, it was a pleasant surprise for the National Board of Revenue (NBR), which organised the events to encourage people to pay up voluntarily.

Thousands of people queued for hours to pay their taxes and to get Tax Identification Numbers (TIN) in Bangladesh's first ever income tax fairs, held in the cities of Dhaka and Chittagong.

This week's five-day event has attracted so many people that organisers had to open more service counters to meet the unexpected demand.

Balloons and ribbons

More than 7,000 people submitted their returns in the first three days alone in Dhaka.

It was more like a funfair, with balloons and coloured ribbons adorning the walls, and there were uniformed volunteers guiding people to various desks.

There were stalls selling snacks and drinks. Many used the occasion to catch up with their friends.

"Nearly 70% of those who submitted their returns in the fair were first-time income tax payers," M A Quader Sarker, Commissioner of Taxes and chief organiser of the event, told the BBC.

"It was beyond our expectations."

Mr Sarker said his department had sought to persuade those at the fair to disclose their income and pay taxes voluntarily.

Many visitors said the fair's main attraction was its hassle-free one-stop service.

Enthusiastic payers

At the event, people could submit their returns, pay their taxes at a bank counter and also get their income tax number at the same premises.

Some said if it had not been for this one-stop service, they would not have been able to submit their returns before the 30 September deadline.

Image caption Bangladeshi taxpayers expect their money to be used to improve the country's ailing infrastructure

The regular procedure of handing in their returns at the income tax office, they said, was complicated and cumbersome.

The taxpayers sounded enthusiastic and did not seem to mind waiting for hours to submit their papers.

"If you are a good citizen then you should pay taxes. I think everyone should pay tax," said Tariq Islam, a first-time taxpayer from Dhaka.

"Only then will our government have enough resources to invest in infrastructure projects."

He said he had stood in the queue for more than three hours to submit his returns.

Only 1.3 million people out of a population of more than 150 million are regular income tax payers in Bangladesh.

The government has been desperately trying to widen its tax net to boost its revenue for years, but without much success.

Spend it judiciously

Officials say the situation only improved after the TIN number was made mandatory to do such things as registering a car, buying a flat or even opening a bank account.

The government collected about $2.6bn (£1.6bn) in tax revenues last year, which is nearly 2.25% of its GDP.

It hopes to increase its tax revenue threefold in the next five years.

The country has also witnessed a sustained economic growth over the past 10 years and the number of middle income earners has increased in the same period.

But some of the taxpayers said they wanted to see how the government would spend their money.

"Like a responsible citizen, I will continue to pay my taxes and it is up to the government to show us the result," said Sheikh Salma Sultana, a young professional, who was submitting her returns for the third consecutive year.

"I want to see how they are going to accommodate our expectations."

Like Sultana, many of the taxpayers said they expected the government to use their taxes judiciously.

They wanted the money to be used to improve the country's ailing infrastructure, healthcare and to create more job opportunities for the younger generation.

It remains to be seen whether the newfound rectitude of these first-time Bangladeshi taxpayers will last