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May 22, 2019

Let’s share economic hardships


May 22, 2019

Laal Khan is a poor taxi driver. Hailing from a small village in Bannu, Khan has been living in a shanty town in Islamabad, working almost for 18 hours a day. Even then, the spectre of starvation keeps haunting him. Years ago, he was able to eat beef or chicken once a week, but the rising inflation has turned beef, chicken or fish into a dream. And now it is beyond his financial capacity to afford such a luxury any more.

Taxi drivers used to compete fiercely in the federal capital to get passengers. This would lead to quarrels at the old Islamabad airports and several other public points but at the end of the day all would have enough passengers to make a decent earning. However, the launch of private ride-hailing services has made it hard for such drivers to get passengers. Laal Khan would work for eight hours years ago but with rising inflation he was forced to extend it to 12 and now his working day consists of 18 hours.

A father of three – two daughters and one son – Khan is always concerned about his only son who is suffering from blood cancer. A huge part of his earning goes into his son’s treatment every month. He took him to several clinics and hospitals; finally, someone advised him to take his ailing son to Shaukat Khanum cancer hospital, even here he spent more than Rs600,000, selling his share of land and borrowing money from friends and relatives to meet his day-to-day expenses.

As if these troubles were not enough, his mother fell ill 18 months ago. His three brothers took her to a government and several private hospitals, spending more than Rs700,000. But, despite that huge amount, their mother passed away a few months ago. Laal Khan had to pay a share of the money spent on her, causing a piling of debts. His two daughters were recently expelled from the private school of his village for not being able to pay the school fee. His village has not witnessed the construction of any school in the last three decades. A government school is situated miles away from his house. So, he put his kids into a private school that is more interested in profit and money than paying any attention to children’s self-respect and dignity.

This is not the story of just one ordinary Pakistani. Millions of hapless people are leading a life of misery and economic hardships but the parliament that represents them is least bothered about the lives of these unfortunate souls. For them, the more than 60 million people living below the poverty line do not exist. They are not interested in wasting time debating over the plight of more than 67 percent Pakistanis who do not have a concrete shelter over their heads, 40 percent stunted children who are the future of this country, the more than80 percent who do not have an access to pure drinking water, the more than 25 million out-of-school children who are likely to have an impoverished life and the more than 8.6 million youth between the ages of 15 and 24 who will be without a job by 2020.

Do we remember when our parliamentarians last took up the issue of stunted growth in the two chambers of parliament? When did suicides caused by extreme poverty catch the attention of our elected representatives? Did this bastion of democratic power ever bother to debate the minimum wage of workers? Has the provision of qualitative free medical facility ever been a priority on the agenda of provincial and federal legislatures? Have they ever come up with a comprehensive plan to address unemployment, malnutrition, falling living standards and provision of basic amenities?

Ironically, this parliament and the ones before it lost no time in allocating the precious resources of the state for perks and privileges of the elected representatives. The provincial legislatures also lavish hefty salaries and allowances on their law makers. For instance, soon after coming into power the Tabdeeli Sarkar in Punjab gave a stunning raise to its law makers. A private bill seeking a raise in the salary of MPAs was approved in just 24 hours, raising the monthly salary and incentives of an MPA from Rs83000 to Rs195000. The basic salary was raised from Rs18,000 to Rs80,000/month, daily allowance from Rs1000 to Rs4000/month and house rent from Rs29,000 to Rs50,000/month. Besides this, the utility allowance was also increased from Rs6000 to Rs20,000/month and hospitality allowance was raised from Rs10,000 to Rs20,000/month.

The impoverished Balochistan’s MPAs receive the highest salaries and most lavish allowances. According to media reports, an MPA of the Balochistan Assembly receives Rs440,000 (for salaries, allowances and privileges a month), Sindh Assembly law makers get Rs145000 each and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly MPAs gets Rs155,800. The chief minister of Punjab draws Rs425000 a month and that of Sindh Rs245,000, while KP and Balochistan chief ministers receive Rs290,000 and Rs600,000 respectively.

It’s not only public representatives who are drawing hefty salaries and allowances from the state exchequer; our senior bureaucrats are also making tons of money from their jobs. A senior federal bureaucrat roughly gets over Rs300,000 a month while some in other state institutions get up to Rs600,000 a month. In addition to that, senior government bureaucrats and other officials also receive residential plots and a number of other benefits that a common Pakistani can only dream of.

With the programme of the IMF, it is likely that the poor will again be asked to make sacrifices. However, it is time the elite gave up their luxurious lifestyles. Let us begin with our parliamentarians. Before the polls, our politicians claim that they are contesting elections to serve the nation. Should our senior bureaucrats and government officials not announce voluntary reduction in their salaries, perks, allowances and privileges? Such actions may not be enough to generate a lot of money but they might go some way in assuring the people that their elected representatives and government officials are ready to share some of the miseries that have befallen this land.

There is a saying that if you cannot abolish poverty, share it then. After the possible package from the IMF, the government needs to shift the burden to the elite instead of sucking more blood out of the people of the country. Let us impose an emergency tax of at least Rs20,000 on everyone living in one kanal or more than one kanal houses – the bigger the house, the higher the tax. Let us tax every one living in an elite housing society or gated community – again the more expensive the house, the higher should be the tax

Let us levy this emergency tax on all luxury cars or rather any car with a market value of more than Rs1.6 million. Let us tax all those ‘farm houses’ that are meant to serve as entertainment venues for the upper middle classes and the rich. Let us put an end to all subsidies given to feudals and the manufacturing mafias. Let them compete in the ruthless market world which they praise all the time. Why should the poor pay for this competition?

Again such taxation may not help save a lot of money but it will go some way assuring the people that they are not the only ones to face economic hardships, and that their elected representatives, government officials and the elite are equally hit by the stringent terms and conditions of the international financial institutions. Let us not leave the Laal Khans of this country alone with more misery.

The writer is a freelance journalist.

Email: [email protected]

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