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September 16, 2018

Misdirected focus


September 16, 2018

As the government’s austerity agenda begins to take shape, one cannot help but feel that the ideas put forth so far are more an exercise in public relations than a substantive attempt to reduce the budget deficit. On Thursday, Federal Minister for National History and Literary Division Shafqat Mehmood – who also holds the education portfolio – announced that the Prime Minister House, governor houses and other heritage buildings used by government officials would be turned into educational institutions, parks, museums and hotels. On the site of the PM House, he said, the government would build a university while the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa governor house would become a resort hotel and the Punjab governor house a museum and art gallery. These are the kind of decisions that are unobjectionable on the surface since it has become a truism that government officials spend lavishly on themselves. No one would argue against developing more educational institutes and museums either. But there is less to this proposal than meets the eye. All told, according to Mehmood, the state spends a total of Rs1.15 billion per year on these buildings. Even if one were to charitably assume that all of this money will now be saved, that represents only a rounding error in our total budget deficit of Rs2.1 trillion.

Even leaving aside the miniscule savings of this proposal, one has to ask if it is wise to move away from the official use of these buildings. The PM House is not just a place of residence for the head of government; it is also where important meetings are held with security officials and foreign dignitaries. The government will have to find some other place to hold such meetings and make sure it has the same level of security. One reason expenditures for the PM House are so high is because no one can enter the area without a security clearance, requiring vetted technical staff like plumbers and electricians to remain on the premises round the clock. The governor houses too are used for important meetings that we wouldn’t want our adversaries to be able to bug. If the government is truly interested in practising austerity, it should focus its attention on big-ticket items. The vast majority of our budget is spent on debt repayments, defence and development, with discretionary funding representing a tiny percentage of total outlays. Finding savings in these essential programmes can be difficult but if the government is unable to raise sufficient revenue it is the only way we can ever balance our books.

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