Saturday May 28, 2022

Winds of change: Part-I

April 18, 2018

With the 4th industrial revolution upon us, the future for Pakistan lies in the 100 million young men and women below the age of 20. It is only through massive investments in education, science, technology and innovation that we can emerge and look for a brighter future. This requires a visionary leader who understands the importance of education in socio-economic development, and is prepared to invest massively to develop a knowledge economy.

The abject failure of our system, despite the claims made by successive governments, is reflected in a comparison of our exports that stagnate at $21 billion with those of Singapore that are 15 fold higher – about $330 billion! Such a transformation can only happen if we declare a National Education Emergency and give the highest national priority to uplifting school, college and university education. Simultaneously, we need to establish and strengthen centres of excellence in cutting-edge technologies such as biotechnology, nanotechnology, agricultural engineering, artificial intelligence and electronics so that innovation can flourish in key fields. To promote entrepreneurship we need to create huge venture capital funds and promote medium and high-technology manufacturing through tax holidays and other incentives. For example, the 15-year tax holiday given in 2001 to the IT industry, and other steps taken, led to a 120-fold growth in IT-related businesses – from a lowly $30 million in 2001 now to about $3.5 billion.

Pakistan stands at an important crossroads of its history. We see a very active chief justice, as never seen before, but none of those who have indulged in mega corruption have so far been sent to jail. NAB has finally awakened after fostering mega corruption for years. But actions remain lethargic. We are planning to go for elections without any serious attempt to undertake electoral reforms or changes in the Election Commission of Pakistan. Some hopes have been attached to the interim government being able to set the country on the correct path. However, this will not be possible as the problems are too many and the time period allocated for the interim government of three months will be too short. A period of at least three years is needed to carry out the much needed electoral reforms as well as various other governance reforms including making key institutions independent of the governments in power so that cronyism is permanently eliminated. This is the most pressing of national issues and just holding elections under a thoroughly corrupt system is a sure recipe for disaster.

The role of the Election Commission needs to change radically from the present cosmetic setup which very superficially screens candidates in seven days, and thereby persons of shady character can come into power. The ECP must become a radically different body that thoroughly screens candidates for their integrity and competence. This screening period must be three, not seven days. So poorly has the ECP performed that over 200 people with forged degrees ended up becoming members of the national and provincial assemblies under the last government. One of these ‘gentlemen’ even became the federal minister of education.

Holding elections without drastic changes in the election process is inviting disaster once too often, as it may mean doom for the country. Efforts are underway to tame NAB so that it cannot act against the corrupt. This would be the last nail in the coffin, as recent actions of NAB had created some hope that Pakistan may yet emerge from this quagmire of corruption that has brought it to its knees. It is high time that NAB gave exemplary punishments to the corrupt and the Supreme Court ensured that those that go to jail for mega corruption are not treated like kings in Adiala jail. They should be treated as common criminals for their dastardly acts that have caused poverty to grow and forced many young men into crime as they see no hope for the future.

The most serious challenge that the interim government will face will be an economic one. Superficially, the economy may appear to be temporarily improving somewhat in recent months, in terms of GDP growth, exports and inflation. However, this is largely window dressing, as the budget deficit continues to grow at an alarming rate, and we are only able to pay off old debts by borrowing more money. We are caught in a vicious debt trap. Both external and domestic debts have reached unprecedented levels as our imports grow at a far faster pace than our imports and there is no attempt on the part of the government to freeze imports of non-essential items or levy heavy taxes on them.

The current account deficit is the most worrying aspect of our economy as the annual target set for the present financial year was $8.9 billion, but it had crossed $10.8 billion in the July 2017 to February 2018 period, while the trade gap and reached $19.7 billion. The current account deficit, at the present rate of increase, may reach $16.2 billion for the year 2017/2018, which is a walloping 82 percent more than that estimated in our National Plan. The foreign exchange reserves are now under extreme pressure as during the period between February 2017 and February 2018, they fell by $4.8 billion, to a level of $12.2 billion. This is less than what we need for three months’ imports.

There seems to be no exit plan to take us out of the huge financial mess created over the last 10 years. Unless we can dramatically reduce the cost of doing business through lower energy tariffs, tax rebates for high-technology industries and a radically different approach to develop a strong knowledge economy, Pakistan will continue to sink deeper into the hole. With strong army action against terrorists, corresponding to a state of war, going on across our frontiers, the serious security threat must be given a high priority in budgetary allocations.

The 18th Amendment has created a huge financial problem for the nation as much-needed resources at the centre have been wrongly passed on to the provinces and much of those have ended up in foreign bank accounts of crooked politicians. The 18th Amendment needs to be cancelled, and the resulting increased funding to the centre be used to boost national security and to develop a strong knowledge economy by investments in education, science & technology and innovation.

The writer is the former chairman of the HEC, and president of the Network of Academies of Science of OICCountries (NASIC).