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Saturday June 22, 2024

A sustainable future

If we fail to act, widespread unrest like that in AJK is inevitable

By Dr Sharmila Faruqi
May 28, 2024
In this picture taken on April 16, 2023, people throng a market area during shopping in Lahore. — AFP
In this picture taken on April 16, 2023, people throng a market area during shopping in Lahore. — AFP

A few days ago, the streets of Azad Jammu and Kashmir were ablaze with anger, echoing the frustration of people yearning for a brighter future. While Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s swift approval of Rs23 billion seems a lifeline for people in Kashmir, it also raises a crucial question: is this financial boost enough for lasting stability or is it just a temporary fix?

The true measure of a nation is not how it fares in times of comfort, but how it rises to the challenges of crisis. This sentiment is vividly illustrated by the recent protests in AJK, highlighting a broader crisis in Pakistan and prompting us to think: can a nation thrive on short-term solutions alone?

The unrest in AJK mirrors the deeper malaise gripping Pakistan: our country’s heavy reliance on the International Monetary Fund (IMF). These loans not only dictate our domestic and foreign policies but also exacerbate the country’s existing woes, from soaring inflation to a burgeoning tax burden on ordering people, widening economic disparity.

For instance, inflation rates in Pakistan are projected to linger at a staggering 26 per cent for the current fiscal year, severely eroding the purchasing power of people. Power tariffs are rampant, consuming an astonishing 100 per cent of an average household income. The sharp increase in the prices of energy and other essential commodities is partly a consequence of the IMF’s lending conditions, which have led the government to phase out energy subsidies.

In February 2024, for the second time in two months, the government raised gas prices by 45 per cent to help struggling gas companies and meet the IMF’s loan requirements. This rise in gas prices has further stoked inflationary pressures. The domestic sector stands second in terms of gas use in the country, with the power sector standing first. Notably, the circular debt has ballooned to about Rs2.3 trillion ($8.9 billion), contributing to inflated electricity bills.

The economic turmoil has exacted a heavy toll on livelihoods, with an estimated 700,000 workers rendered jobless due to the closure of approximately 1,600 clothing factories in crisis-hit Pakistan. This mass unemployment not only devastates families but also imperils the backbone of our economy – the textile sector, responsible for close to 60 per cent of the country’s total export earnings.

The health sector presents its own set of challenges, with Pakistan grappling with a double burden of disease, from the endemicity of Hepatitis B and C affecting 7.6 per cent of the population to the staggering tuberculosis burden and malaria endemicity in focal geographical areas. The rural-urban divide is stark, with rural areas lagging in access to healthcare, education and infrastructure. Pakistan ranks in the ‘low’ human development category with a Human Development Index (HDI) value of 0.540 and a global ranking of 164 out of 193 countries.

Moreover, as stated by the World Bank, over 10 million Pakistanis may fall below the poverty line, highlighting that Pakistan is expected to miss its primary budget targets, keeping Islamabad in deficit for at least three more years.

This leads to two critical points: first, the debate on the budget in the National Assembly. The debate that should have started by now is delayed and will resume just two days before the budget announcement. The lack of robust debate on the upcoming budget further alienates the people, making them feel unheard and unimportant. Second, the reliance on IMF loans.

It is evident that loans from the IMF are not a lifeline; they are a noose around the necks of Pakistanis. High inflation and increased taxes squeeze the middle and lower classes, while essential services remain underfunded. In Pakistan, the only thing soaring higher than temperatures is the frustration of the forgotten farmer and the neglected urban dweller.

To move beyond this crisis, Pakistan must adopt a multifaceted approach. First, we need to diversify our economic strategies. This involves moving beyond reliance on IMF loans by developing local industries, encouraging foreign investment, and improving export policies. It is because, without economic reform, financial aid is just a stopgap.

Second, we must invest in renewable energy sources to reduce our electricity crisis. By harnessing solar, wind and hydropower, we can provide sustainable and reliable power to households and businesses alike. This is essential as the future of Pakistan hinges on breaking free from the debt trap.

Moving further, bridging the rural-urban divide is also crucial. Implementing targeted programmes to improve healthcare, education and infrastructure in rural areas will ensure equitable development and bring much-needed services to the underserved. Moreover, addressing health crises requires substantial investment in public health infrastructure and preventive care, particularly in rural areas where services are often lacking. This is vital as Pakistan grapples with the aftermath of climate change-induced disasters and a rising prevalence of diseases like hepatitis.

Equally important is fostering a culture of public debate and transparency, especially concerning the national budget. Ensuring that the budget reflects the needs of the people requires a transparent, timely and inclusive debate in the National Assembly. This would help restore public trust and ensure that policies are crafted with the people’s welfare in mind.

It is noteworthy that Pakistan stands at a crossroads. The path we choose now will determine our future for generations to come. Political stability alone is not enough. We need decisive actions and policies that prioritize the well-being of our citizens, moving beyond a purely security-centric approach.

If we fail to act, widespread unrest like that in AJK is inevitable. This is the time for urgent and bold measures, therefore, initiating negotiations, projects, incentives, and diplomacy that align with a sustainable economic strategy is paramount.

Increased dependence on foreign institutions not only jeopardizes our sovereignty but also presents a formidable barrier to progress – something Pakistan can ill afford at this critical juncture.

The writer is a member of the National Assembly and has a PhD in law.