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March 15, 2019

Government on the retreat


March 15, 2019

The PTI government, led by Prime Minister Imran Khan, seems on the retreat on multiple fronts, whether economic or political.

The PTI government repeatedly said that it would not give special treatment to former prime minister Nawaz Sharif as he has been convicted on corruption charges. But in the last few days, the government seems to be on the back foot and retreating from its early stance. Former PTI secretary general and close political aide of PM Imran Khan, Jahangir Tareen has said that the government can consider sending Nawaz Sharif abroad for medical treatment if required. The government looks under pressure on this issue. To many, it seems that Nawaz Sharif may soon be on his way to get medical treatment where he wants.

The PTI had assured the people of this country that it would not take loans like the PML-N and PPP governments had. When the PTI was in opposition, it saw these loans as a curse. But in the first seven months of its government, loans seem to have become a blessing. It is adding loans at a much faster pace compared to any previous government in the recent past. (Former finance minister Miftah Ismail wrote a brilliant piece on this issue two day back on these pages. A real treat and a must read if one missed it).

We were told that the PTI government would introduce reforms in its first 100 days. When it came to power, the PTI government formed different task forces and committees to suggest measures, reforms and policies to bring the promised change and to make a ‘Naya Pakistan’. It is still a mystery how much work has been done by these task forces and committees. Nobody knows how long this exercise will take before the reports might be made public.

Since coming into power seven months ago, there has been a lack of vision, political will and policy framework to introduce reforms in the economy, civil service, police and judiciary. This has forced the government to adopt traditional shortsighted policies and measures that bring us to a stage where we stand today as a nation. These pro-elite and big business policies will only strengthen the status quo. The lessons of the neoliberal economic policies of the last four decades clearly tell us that they only serve the interests of the ruling elite and some layers of the middle class. The people are waiting for the trickle-down affect which never really reaches them.

We were told over the years that the PTI government would get hold of every tax-evader, money-launderer and loan-defaulter. We were told that the PTI government would double the revenue so the country could achieve economic independence and self-reliance in five years. What we have seen in the first seven months of PTI rule, though, is U-turns and a shortfall in the revenues.

During the period of heightened tensions between India and Pakistan after the Pulwama attack, the PTI government passed the mini budget from the National Assembly in a hurry. Through that money bill, the government reversed the measures introduced by the previous PML-N government in its last budget to impose some restrictions on tax non-filers (at the time, non-filers were barred from buying plots and vehicles beyond a certain price level).

The PTI government has now allowed non-filers to buy cars and property. The withdrawal of restrictions did not send an encouraging signal to the taxpayers of this country. It seems that the government succumbed to the pressure exerted by powerful real-estate and auto sectors.

This also means that the culture of tax evasion will continue to flourish under the PTI government. The measures introduced in the money bill by Finance Minister Asad Umar disappointed many people who believed that the PTI would be hard on tax-evaders.

We were told that the special development funds for MNAs and MPAs were a source of corruption and used as a bribe. We were assured that the PTI government would stop this practice and instead spend these funds through the local governments. But the PTI government in Punjab succumbed to the pressure of its MPAs and decided to provide development funds to them.

The same applies to the 100 percent increase in the salaries of the Punjab chief minister, speaker of the Punjab Assembly and Punjab MPAs. It took the PTI government just 24 hours to pass the bill in the Punjab Assembly to increase their salaries. This while young doctors, teachers and poor old pensioners will continue to work and live on the same old low wages and pensions.

The PTI government is also failing to control the rising inflation. We have already entered the period of high inflation. The 8.6 percent inflation is hurting the poor and working class people of the country. It might not be a big deal for the upper layers of middle class and the rich when prices go up. But it hurts the poor, working class and lower middle class very badly. A one or two percent increase in the inflation deprives the poor and working families of basic everyday needs and utilities. They are forced to choose between food and medicine.

Some pharmaceutical companies have also increased the prices of life-saving drugs by up to 100 percent – and some even more. Many lifesaving medicines have gone out the reach of poor and lower middle-class patients. The Drug Regulatory Authority of Pakistan (DRAP) had allowed pharmaceutical companies to increase the prices of medicines up to 15 percent from January 1, 2019. As a result of that, the prices of thousands of medicines were increased; this included lifesaving drugs. But some pharma companies want to make even more profits at the cost of the patients.

The poor and the most economically vulnerable sections have been left at the mercy of multinational companies, big business, greedy capitalists and brutal market forces. They are paying unjustified high prices as the government silently watches poor consumers being exploited.

The writer is a freelance journalist.

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