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July 9, 2019

Signs of a turnaround?


July 9, 2019

On the surface, Imran Khan completed his best week as prime minister. Budget 2019-20 was approved by parliament. The PTI’s amnesty scheme for undeclared assets was implemented and should help in jacking up revenues this year by Rs70 billion. The IMF’s $6 billion package was cleared. Saudi oil supplies on deferred payment are about to begin and Qatar’s first tranche of foreign exchange support fund has been received.

That is not all. After the announcement of major dollar inflows under bilateral arrangements and the IMF, over $5 billion has been promised by the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank in the coming years. The exchange rate has moved significantly in the rupee’s favour and the stock market is coming out of its bearish spell.

The downside of course is a phenomenal rise in Pakistan’s external debt. The Fund has by now assumed the role of a super finance minister, by drawing a three-year plan to raise $38 billion to sustain a seriously ailing economy. By that reckoning, the PTI government might beat all previous rulers in increasing Pakistan’s foreign debt. That makes you wonder how we are going to pay that if not by stretching the begging bowl ever farther.

On the political front, government-opposition tensions remain high. The government has reasons to be upbeat as the opposition’s threat to block the budget’s passage and launch protest marches lacked credibility. The opposition is feeling the heat as never before. In this melee, the media too has come under pressure. And to top it all, Rana Sanaullah is behind bars on drug trafficking charges. Who could have asked for more? But PM Khan is talking as harshly as before, warning of further relentless retribution and no NROs.

A turnaround of sorts is discernible in Pakistan’s ties with the US. PM Khan will be having a crucial encounter with President Trump at the White House on Monday, July 22. But can the US president look beyond Afghanistan and his re-election to work on a durable partnership with Pakistan? In a related development, the Baloch Liberation Army, has been declared a terrorist organization by Washington. And President Ashraf Ghani has visited Islamabad and Lahore to patch up a frayed relationship.

Amid these positive developments, Pakistan’s lacklustre performance at the Cricket World Cup sticks out as a sore thumb. Pakistan nearly lost the match against Afghanistan. More serious, however, is the elimination of our team from the World Cup semi-finals. A strange bunch of players if there ever was. As Ricky Ponting put it, they can beat any team, and lose to any team, because it’s Pakistan against Pakistan! With the team’s run for the World Cup coming to an end, some of the senior players including the captain, who have passed their Best Before dates, should be thanked and seen off, and a new line-up for the national team named.

A disturbing thought appears. What if our methodology in wide-ranging fields – not only sports – is also flawed? That could be the reason why success is eluding the world’s sixth largest country in terms of population, in all team efforts particularly in terms of productivity. As the elites are busy in building their wealth and increasing their share in the national pie, the economy is slowing down. Long-existing industries are being dismantled. A major economic reorientation is needed to move away from non-competitive to more promising sectors.

A consultative mechanism on the economy with the army chief’s participation is a step in the right direction. However, the problem of national failure in many areas is deep rooted and requires far-reaching changes and reforms.

The task, however, is not simple. Corruption in high places is a major problem but it is even more endemic at the working levels in the offices dealing with land registry, building permissions, and departments like police, customs, taxation and numerous other places where citizens have to bribe low-level officials to get their work done.

I asked a mid-level officer if the higher ups know about these practices. His reply was in the affirmative. It is easy to presume that there are honest officers but they cannot eradicate practices at the lower levels. Or there is an entire web of corruption proceeds going to higher levels as revealed by investigative reporters, notably in Sindh. These entrenched practices need changes in attitudes and work ethic.

In general, Pakistan’s productivity in agriculture and industry is below par. The level of service in the public sector is pathetic. Corruption is a major problem but not the only one. We really need to be re-educated as a nation to shun short cuts to become rich and feel proud in rendering a hard day’s work as a rule rather than an exception.

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