11 days ago

When online e-TIN systems collapse

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The online system of the Electronic Taxpayer Identification Number (e-TIN) went offline last Tuesday, March 14. According to a report published in this newspaper, the national board of revenue (NBR) confirmed that there have been some hardware-related problems which caused the system to crash. This is a major problem in the sense that there is no system of applying for an e-TIN manually anymore - everything is online. Reportedly, "the board is trying to find out and fix the problem" and the NBR's ICT wing has been working to bring the system back online. The NBR in all likelihood will be able to restore the system partially and then fully after some days, but the collapse of this essential service would surely stir up worries among both service providers and recipients.

One must understand that e-TIN is now essential for availing as many as 40 services. Some of these are: opening letters of credit; applying for credit cards and bank loans (above Tk500,000); obtaining membership in trade and professional bodies; having membership of registered clubs and trade bodies; getting licenses for trade, import / export; obtaining registration and renewable certificates for motor vehicles; participating in tenders, elections; submitting bills of entry for export and import. As E-TIN is now entirely online and anyone, who needs it to avail some of the services, mentioned above need it, will be in a fix when the system is down.

Although the NBR authorities have assured that there is no need to be panicky and the e-TIN database is safe and secure, the issue of it going offline requires some explanation. Apparently, the company that designed the systems has been providing necessary support as part of a service contract. It is a paid service and it is alleged that there are outstanding bills to the company, and it has been providing service despite this as part of vendor-customer relations. While it is impossible to verify these allegations, the unsavoury fact is that if an essential service like e-TIN remains offline even for a day, it may cause untold inconveniences to millions of people in the country.

When one talks about inconvenience, it is not just problematic for the 8.0 million or so registered TIN holders but other groups of people who have no TIN as yet. Two broad groups of people may need an e-TIN at any time. First, those people who have inherited property from family and may need / want to sell it. These are people who have no viable income source but will require an e-TIN when it comes to sale of fixed assets. While it may be expedient to say that people should wait a few days to offload property, it is a very condescending way of looking at such matters. There may be an emergency for any individual who needs to sell or transfer ownership of property, but he or she can't because the system is offline and that person cannot get an e-TIN registration. The other group of affected people are recipients of inward remittances. The billions of dollars that come in from expatriate workers are being received by millions of people in the country. A significant chunk of this money goes to buy assets, particularly land or other fixed property. These people will face the same problem as the previous group.

Any disruption in the system is bound to cause a headache to millions of people who are not being able to obtain an e-TIN certificate. This is not the first time the system has gone offline. Since, this is a hardware-related problem that depends on software to keep the system up-and-running, it should be treated with greater care. There must be contingency planning for such situations, so that people are not left in the lurch. One can only hope that the system in place today will be revisited and budgetary allocations are made so that the company that keeps the support services in operation is paid on time throughout the year.

Digitisation of the revenue authority has been a major policy initiative of the government, and hiccups of this magnitude cannot be understated. While it is praiseworthy that the current problem has not corrupted the database, it would be even more praiseworthy if the system had a failsafe backup that would stop it from going offline for more than a few hours; instead, of the several days that have been wasted to rectify the system. The country would be greatly benefitted if simple things like service contracts were worked out and an automated system of payment for services rendered was put in place. Contract management remains a sore point at all levels of policy implementation and this needs a major rethink. Warranty terms, service contracts etc., are all essential elements of ICT products that are procured. Hence, the NBR would be better served if these issues were streamlined sooner than later.

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