Profiteering in urban transformation and the fates of our taxes
Turkey, in every sense of the word, was crushed again by an earthquake’s collapse. We are in the midst of an earthquake experience that is so severe, so bitter, and so embroiled in negligence.
Turkey is a country vulnerable to earthquakes. It is unfathomable why we struggle to comprehend this, to accept it, and to design all living spaces accordingly.
The saying “buildings, not earthquakes, kill people” is illustrative of this reality.
We do not use technology, we do not minimize risks, we do not appropriately apply regulatory codes, we are unable to execute search and rescue efforts after earthquakes as expansively as possible, we fail to deliver emergency aid and emergency health services.
We cannot explain away the demolition of town halls, airports, hospitals, and schools — those buildings constructed for the most basic of public needs — simply by the force of the earthquake.
It is unacceptable for constructions that should be the most dependable in earthquakes to be so nondurable. The need for a new code of comprehensive measures against earthquakes and safe construction is greater than ever before.
Introduced in 2001 after the 1999 Marmara earthquake, the construction code law that handed over to private businesses the task of monitoring the code compliance of constructions, and thus privatized regulations, marks a very critical threshold in terms of what we experience in earthquakes.
Though the law was applied in 19 provinces until the beginning of 2011, as per the Cabinet’s decision, it was expanded to encompass the entire country as of the beginning of 2011. This law makes every building in its scope subject to the code regulation of private regulatory bodies that qualify as legal entities.
It is widely known that many construction code companies have been formed in the past few years. Yet with the most recent Maras earthquake, we see that there has been insufficient regulation.
One of the most important points here is the inadequacy, lack of regulation, and irregularity that have been caused by the prioritization of factors other than merit and the incompliance with specifications. The fact that public buildings have suffered so much structural damage is the clearest indicator of this.
After all these years of earthquake experiences, we apparently still have not understood earthquake preparedness in any sense. We can list the most basic headings for earthquake preparedness as building on suitable ground, using quality materials, and focusing on horizontal architecture while making zoning plans as opposed to increasing density and multi-story buildings.
Particularly under the guise of urban transformation, a construction based entirely on profiteering and aimed at lining the pockets of contractors is being carried out. Turkey must put an end to this quickly.
It has been over one thousand years since the ancestors of the people living in the geography of Turkey came to Anatolia and transitioned into settled life, but we still have been unable to comprehend settled life, we have been unable to learn what urbanization and city-living necessitates.
THE FATE OF THE EARTHQUAKE TAX
Another important topic is the developments regarding the Special Communications Tax... From 1999 to the end of 2022, the government collected 88 billion 240 million Turkish Lira by way of this practice, which was initially introduced to compensate for the economic losses caused by the 1999 Marmara earthquake but is still levied today, and has been called the earthquake tax.
According to the assessments of tax law expert Murat Bati, PhD, the largest collection of 24 years took place in 2022 with a total of 9 billion 298 million TL. The entirety of this income was recorded in the Treasury as direct income. In his assessment on the subject, Bati said, "Until the end of 2022, a total of 88 billion 240 million TL was generated from the earthquake tax. These amounts, taking into account the nominal values in the years they were collected, were recorded. That is, they are values recorded without being indexed. If it had been indexed with the foreign currency rate, such as the dollar or euro in the relevant year, we would have yielded a very different result.”
Bati makes an important analysis here:
"At this point, it is not possible to use the special communication tax levied for earthquake disaster relief, which is recorded as income in the general budget, solely for the earthquake, pursuant to Article 13/g of the Law No. 5018. The collected taxes are pooled together and then redistributed to other places and services to be used. For this reason, as long as the special communication tax, also known as the earthquake tax, remains as such a tax, we cannot use it directly for the earthquake."
Speaking on the same matter, Ozan Bingol, a tax expert, brings the following evaluations to the agenda:
“From then until now, a total of 88 billion liras have been collected through the Special Communications Tax. With the average dollar exchange rate, this amount is the equivalent of 38 billion 248 million 506 thousand dollars. However, in accordance with our budget law, it is not possible to allocate revenues to certain expenses. So, taxes are collected in a pool and expenses are made from there. For this reason, it is a necessity of democracy to question not only where our earthquake taxes are going, but also to hunt down all our taxes and gather whether they are being used appropriately.
The issue at hand is not limited to the Special Communications Tax known as the earthquake tax. The issue is the fate of our taxes in their entirety.
The issue is the eroded Public Procurement System, the zoning profits that are sweet to some, and the zoning amnesties that disregard the value of human life! The reality is that everything is expensive, while human life is cheap..."
If these resources had been used to salve the wounds of past earthquakes and to construct safer buildings, the problem of safe housing for millions of people would have been resolved.
However, in the past, the ruling party itself said that these resources were spent elsewhere. When asked where earthquake taxes went, Mehmet Simsek, the Finance Minister of the AKP government at the time, had responded, "We spent it on double-way roads.”
Where the earthquake taxes have gone stands before us as the most justified question that comes to the agenda following every earthquake in Turkey.
It is the fundamental right of every citizen to know where these taxes go. Sure, the government does not relinquish taxes that are easy to collect, but why are we unable to produce earthquake-resistant homes? Why are we unable to properly spend resources where they are needed?
The most critical issue here is that the state has removed itself from the regulatory mechanisms of public institutions. If public institutions are dismantled and transferred to the private sector, we will continue to experience these painful disasters yet again.
A SOCIETY THAT PROTECTS ITS TAXES
Our greatest need is to consciously question how our public needs are met.
The airports, the schools, the hospitals where people take shelter during a disaster should not be able to be destroyed.
The fact that the mechanisms of accountability, transparency, and informing the public have been suspended in recent years is the main reason for this suffering.
One of the most important elements of being a democratic society is protecting its taxes.
Being able to account for who pays how much tax for what, in addition to who does not pay what and by how much, and where the collected taxes are spent is the basis of democracy.
It is the day for the elevation of the spirit of solidarity and unity to the highest degree. Yet it is also the day that we must show this solidarity and this unity as we make those who have squandered our taxes to account for their misuse.
Else, these deep-rooted problems of ours will remain without a solution, and we will be unable to salve any bleeding wounds.