By Zubeida Mustafa
WE live in a bizarre country. That is the most appropriate term I find to describe Pakistan. It has some laws and official practices that are not only irrational, but actually absurd when seen in the context of their implementation. They cannot be explained and no sane-minded person would justify them. The elites are the beneficiaries and so they are pro-status quo.
The root of the evil lies in our failure to show ownership of our country, mainly because we are not unanimous in our opinion regarding the raison d’être of Pakistan’s genesis. Was it to be a homeland for the Muslims of the subcontinent? Was it to be a theocratic state patterned on Riyasat-i-Madina? Was it to be a security state designed to guard the ummah? The fact is that our own people now feel betrayed by our own rulers.
Mostly uneducated, our masses are confused. They fill the mosques chock-a-block and pray for a miracle. That alone can brace them for the sacrifices they are asked to make in the name of austerity.
A look at the situation on the ground brings out the bizarre contradictions. The authors of the federal budget announced last week had obviously not read the Pakistan National Human Development Report (2020) prepared by renowned economist Dr Hafeez Pasha. It very succinctly brings out the stark inequality that divides the country into “two Pakistans”. He writes, “The overall share for the poorest income quintile is 14.2 per cent compared to 37.2pc for the richest quintile.”
The perks for government officials have been bizarre.
What is not recorded in this budget or in earlier ones is the fact that “the total privileges enjoyed by Pakistan’s most powerful groups amounted to Rs2,660 billion in 2017-2018. Equivalent to 7pc of the country’s GDP, these privileges can be broken down into favourable pricing, lower taxation and preferential access”. On the other hand, according to Pasha, the social welfare programme which is mainly used by the poor amounted to a measly Rs624bn in 2019.
And how do our rulers spend the revenues and foreign exchange reserves they earn? Economist Kaiser Bengali, while presenting a ‘shadow budget’ a day before the federal budget was introduced in the National Assembly, gave us this bit of information. For every Rs100 raised as revenue the government spends Rs200 on current expenditure. As for the balance-of-payments gap, for every $100 worth of goods exported we import goods worth $220. This deficit is met by loans that have been ballooning, and now foreign debt servicing stands at Rs3.9 trillion.
The president of Pakistan was recently reported to have approved a 10pc hike in the salaries of superior judiciary judges. The salaries of senior bureaucrats and the perks they receive are phenomenal as I was informed by our unrelenting social activist Naeem Sadiq who gathers information from the horse’s mouth. From him I learnt that the federal and four provincial governments in the country collectively own 150,000 vehicles that are mostly allocated to officials of various grades while a few are kept in a car pool to be requisitioned for specific purposes. Naeem Sadiq also told me that the British government owns 83 vehicles and all of them are kept in a car pool and that no individual is allotted a car.
The perks have been bizarre in Pakistan, with bureaucrats entitled to hundreds of litres of petrol. Senior officials and their families are entitled to healthcare from elite private hospitals and the government reimburses their bills. Overcrowded ill-equipped public-sector hospitals are not good enough for them.
It remains to be seen whether the austerity measures, which include slashing petrol quotas, announced for government officials, will be followed.
The privileges have extended to education. The private schools and cadet colleges are for the rich, including government servants, and low-fee schools are for the poor. So inadequate is the education system in the country that Unesco says that 23 million children in the age group from five to 16 years don’t go to school. The biggest paradox is the rapidly growing population of those who live below the poverty line. The leaders are too prudish to even make a call for family planning, and the babies keep coming — six million a year, according to the National Committee for Maternal and Neonatal Health.
The bulk of the population has been reduced to this condition as a result of poor governance and resource constraints. A major factor is the expenditure on safeguarding the security state. The defence budget for FY2023 stands at Rs1.52tr which is an 11.16pc increase over the previous year’s defence spending.
The greatest irony is that the real danger comes from the possibility of an implosion, spawned by internal unrest among the poverty-stricken starving masses who have reached the brink. Can our other sophisticated arsenal be used to protect the security state from its own people?