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July 1, 2019

It’s the people

Opinion

July 1, 2019

Ten months into office and PM Khan seems to have settled in the role of the nation’s chief instructor. One wonders if he will have success as a reformer, or retire, echoing what President Charles de Gaulle of France had felt: my problem is the people.

Having been credited with pulling France out of the morass after WWII, De Gaulle realized that he and the people were no longer in sync. He called a referendum. The people voted against his national project in 1969. De Gaulle took no time in resigning and returning to his village in Eastern France.

Here is a little experience that sheds light on prevailing attitudes. To my utter shock, the attendant filling my car at the service station had vanished in the middle of his job, leaving the pump on auto-pilot. My loud protests led to someone saying that the man had gone to answer nature’s call without asking one of his colleagues to complete the transaction. I protested to the manager over this height of negligence but left it to him to sort out matters almost convinced that nothing would really happen because of a general ‘mitti pao’ mindset.

Rest assured, Mr Prime Minister, the previous regimes and assorted mafias are not the only causes of our miseries. It’s us, the people. No amount of exhortations to the people to become responsible citizens and fill state coffers is going to work. The people may listen but they are unlikely to follow his mantra.

Prime Minister Imran Khan was back on the box, exhorting the rich and richer to declare their hidden assets and become tax filers. It appears increasingly a matter of human psychology: how to persuade the people to part with their money. He goes on to cite the example of the nation’s generosity in funding the Shaukat Khanum hospitals sponsored by him.

Indeed, there is paradox here as Pakistanis are among the most charitable in the world but extremely reluctant to pay tax on incomes. They are per force made to pay taxes on goods and services they use. PM Khan is of course free to give sermons on paying taxes but those are failing to bring results. The solution does not lie in more speeches or interviews but in making the tax collectors more efficient. His promise to bring reforms in the FBR in the coming months is very timely.

Then again, why would a particular segment become super-efficient when the state and government are pathetically inefficient? Hence my suggestion to PM Khan: speak softly and carry a big stick. In other words, don’t scare the people in general and the businessmen in particular. Do your job conscientiously and the results will follow. Remember the people elected you to deliver not to lecture.

Some of us have been following Bangladesh’s strides in social and economic fields, surpassing Pakistan in human development, exports, foreign exchange reserves and lately in per capita income. It has hardly come as a surprise then that Bangladesh has graduated out of the category of Least Developed Countries – LDCs – something Pakistan achieved long ago, thereby losing the edge of zero tariff to Bangladesh in the European Union.

Pakistan’s performance in the areas cited above has been on the decline. It arguably has the best road system, telecom network and social security programmes in the Subcontinent but the economic cost has been steep as is evident from the prevailing debt crisis. The present economic situation does not give hope and the prime minister’s warnings of hard times ahead only raise the level of mass demoralization.

The reports of a possible move to raise retirement age in public service from 60 to 63 and the clarification that the proposal had been deferred led me to look up the retirement age in Bangladesh. It is unchanged at 59 and Prime Minister Haseena Wajid has turned down proposals to raise it to 60, saying that the government has to provide jobs to a maximum number of people. Besides, the Bangladesh government works six days a week, which means that the public servants of that country have around 50 holidays less than Pakistan every year. The powers that matter may reflect on that before looking at schemes like raising the retirement age. In sum, we cannot start following practices in the developed countries while the country goes downhill.

The PTI finds convenient scapegoats in the country’s two major parties for this state of indebtedness but it has a longer history. Every time Pakistan was an ally of the US, aid levels increased exponentially. But when the assignment came to an end, Pakistan was placed under sanctions and restrictions on aid. Pakistan was on the verge of a default in 1998-99 and again in 2001, and then 9/11 happened. The debts were written off or rescheduled, large new aid packages were announced.

Things have changed dramatically since the arrival of US President Donald Trump. Pakistan’s aid has been cut but the demands to do more have not ceased. Rather than encouraging India to lower its repression in Indian-occupied Kashmir, Washington has backed India on rooting out jihadi outfits in Pakistan while brandishing the threat of blacklisting by the FATF. These are some of the facts the PTI leadership should keep in mind while explaining the unsustainable level of debt.

The PTI government is doing what the predecessors have done: taking new loans to pay off the old ones. In fact, its speed of piling new debt is breath-taking. Retribution has no time limits and this government will surely be held to responsibility for a stupendous increase in the country’s foreign debt.

Someone said that inflation of words is the worst of all inflations.

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