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June 29, 2019

Some respite to the people

Opinion

June 29, 2019

The arrests of former president Asif Ali Zardari and his sister Faryal Talpur may have comforted a few sections of the ruling class but seem to have brought no respite to the millions of Pakistanis who are groaning under rising inflation, extreme poverty and perpetual unemployment.

First, it was the conviction of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif that was presented as a panacea. Now, the arrests of the two PPP leaders are also being used to create an impression that their conviction will solve all the problems of the country.

No Pakistani would want corrupt politicians to strut around the country. They wish to see the corrupt convicted. But some also feel that the sword of accountability is only hanging over the heads of opposition leaders. The government needs to dispel this impression by ensuring across-the-board accountability.

The government has every right to prosecute those whom it deems corrupt. It must punish the black sheep in government departments. But at this moment the people of the country are more concerned about day-to-day problems than the tall claims of the government about accountability. They are wondering if the great Khan has anything for those poor slum dwellers in Karachi whose houses were recently razed in the name of the circular railways and who are now living under the scorching beams of the sun in sweltering heat. They want to know if the champion of change can provide jobs to thousands of youths and petty businessmen whose shops, small restaurants, roadside kiosks and thatched hotels were demolished in the anti-encroachment drive.

They are surprised that the man who talked about stunted growth of children and malnutrition is planning to render more people jobless by privatizing state concerns, which will deprive them of any food, let alone quality food. To their utter surprise, the man who promised to provide shelter for the poor is rendering them shelterless in the name of mega projects. Their Kaptaan, who talked about the importance of spending money on human development, has drastically slashed social sector development schemes while his handpicked chief minister in Punjab halved the development budget.

The dollar is soaring. Exports are shrinking. Industrial growth is stagnant. Agriculture is on the verge of destruction. Remittances did not witness any substantial rise. CPEC projects seem to be extremely slow. The police and patwari culture is still in vogue. For a common citizen, free education, quality healthcare and decent housing are still a dream. Contaminated water is still said to be one of the biggest causes of disease. Lifting millions of people out of poverty still appears to be a daunting challenge. On the contrary, the rising inflation is set to push more people below the poverty line. And the cost of doing business has increased.

Now, the government of change seems to be giving more powers to the Federal Board of Revenue. It has already granted unlimited powers to NAB. The police in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa enjoy the same colonial powers that PM Khan would stand against. Despite all claims of austerity, the government has been accused of keeping a brigade of ministers, special assistants and task force members. The promise to keep the smallest possible cabinet has also been forgotten. The sword of austerity is only falling over the heads of the unfortunate common folk.

The government needs to restore the confidence of the people. It is true that the government inherited a pile of debts. It is also correct that the tension at the borders during the last ten months was not the result of the PTI’s policy but more due to the jingoistic mentality of Indian Prime Minister Modi and his right-wing party BJP. This tension too increased Pakistan’s financial woes.

What Khan might need to do is to carry out a genuine austerity programme that does not hit the masses but which does test the claims of our political elite. On average a politician spends somewhere between 30 and 100 million Pakistani rupees on the election of one National Assembly seat. If the respected parliamentarians can spend this much money for one seat, why can they not sacrifice their salaries for five years, allowing this amount to be directed to health, education, pure drinking water and other essential commodities?

The prime minister can start from his own party. This will put moral pressure on opposition parties to follow suit. Let us assume that the average salary of a parliamentarian is Rs300,000 monthly, including perks and privileges. For the 342 members of the National Assembly, it would be around Rs6,156,000,000; add the salaries of 104 senators to this which would be Rs31,200,000. Over six billion rupees can only be saved if our parliamentarians can really make this noble sacrifice for five years.

Now make a calculation for the 728 members of the all four provincial assemblies, 49 members of AJK and 33 members of the GB Assembly. It would be over Rs14 billion. So, the total would be more than Rs20 billion. Imagine: we spend over Rs20 billion for 1256 lawmakers of the federal, four provincial and GB and AJK assemblies while the total budget of the Karachi Metropolitan Authority was Rs27.14 billion for fiscal year 2017-18. So, if our politicians really make this sacrifice, this would be a great a great service to a nation that is grappling with a severe financial crisis.

The government should present a resolution regarding this sacrifice. People are sure leaders like Shahid Khaqaan Abbasi, Shahbaz Sharif, Azam Swati, Bilawal Bhutto and several others who are brimming with wealth would not hesitate to support such a resolution – and if they do, they would be exposed.

The economy is shrinking with every passing day. If the government cannot create more jobs, at least it should not increase the age of retirement, which will deprive the youth of job opportunities. In addition to that, the government could send Pakistani students to countries like Germany and other advanced states where education is still free. Such students may find jobs in international markets, sending crucial remittances to the country. Kuwait, Qatar and a number of other states need manpower. Instead of borrowing money we can strike a deal to export human resource to the Gulf and other states that might need it. This would also help boost our remittances.

A number of students from Africa and Arab countries come to study in Pakistan because they cannot afford to get higher education in Western countries. We could explore the possibility of attracting more students from these states. In the past some science departments of Karachi University would attract students even from Europe. We need to fund our science faculties, which could help us run these educational institutions on a commercial basis for foreigners. This would not only help universities get more sources of funding but would also benefit the government financially.

The financial woes of millions of people could be reduced by simply ensuring quality health facilities at government hospitals and excellent education at state-run educational institutions. At hospitals all the government needs to do is to ensure the attendance of doctors and medical staff, penalize those who send common people to expensive laboratories – despite the fact that all major hospitals are well equipped with ultra-modern machines – and carry out a massive plan of preventive care. At schools, the government just needs to extend basic facilities besides ensuring the attendance of students and holding of monthly tests.

If the PTI government cannot do it across the country, it can at least implement such policies in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa where it has its own governments. Such measures might go some way in alleviating the suffering of the people and helping them feel some respite.

The writer is a freelance journalist.

Email: [email protected]

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