Saturday May 28, 2022

Strategic changes

January 08, 2020

Pakistan must change the strategic directions of development and rise to face the challenges of the 4th Industrial Revolution.

According to McKinsey Global, the emerging technologies will have an impact of $100 trillion by 2025. About a dozen technologies will have an impact of $33 trillion annually. These include Artificial Intelligence, Internet of Things, cloud computing, advanced robotics, automation of knowledge, autonomous vehicles, advanced materials, next-gen genomics, energy storage systems, 3D printing, renewable energy, advanced technologies for oil and gas exploration etc. The knowledge economy initiatives started under the personal leadership of the prime minister can help prepare Pakistan for this new era.

The priority areas identified by the Knowledge Economy Task Force include high-value agriculture, industrial biotechnology, rapidly emerging areas of IT, mineral development and blended education (this involves integrating high-quality online courses at school, college and university levels into conventional courses). An important project taken up by our task force after approval by the PM was to work closely with NADRA to increase the tax revenue and widen the tax net. Using innovative AI protocols and algorithms, NADRA and some FBR transaction records were examined. A remarkable result achieved within three months was that 3.8 million non-tax filers – each with a tax liability of more than Rs100,000 – were identified. They should have paid an estimated Rs1.6 trillion in income tax in the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2017.

The information was made available on website where private access was given to individuals. As a result, the total declared assets moved sharply up to Rs3 trillion and the actual taxes paid to Rs65 billion. More than 90,000 non-tax filers became tax filers, and the total tax returns for the year ending June 30, 2018 crossed two million, by far the highest number ever in the history of the FBR.

Pakistan, a country of some 220 million, has exports of only about $25 billion. In comparison, tiny Singapore with no significant natural resources and a population of only 5.5 million (about a quarter of that of Karachi), has exports of $330 billion. Clearly, this represents a colossal failure of successive democracies. It is a sad reality that, despite all the sound and fury expressed by our former political leaders regarding the benefits of democracy, economic growth and poverty reduction have fared much better under military dictatorships than under the pseudo-democracies that have existed in Pakistan.

The reality is that true democracy has never existed in the past as it was hijacked by powerful individuals who looted the country at will whenever they came to power. The key element of democracy is strengthening local bodies and passing funds to the grassroots. The strong resistance by provincial governments to local bodies elections clearly revealed their intentions to keep a stranglehold on funds that could be then channelled into personal assets through numerous ingenious channels developed by those in power. The lowest priority was given to education, science, technology and innovation so that feudals could maintain their strong serfdoms and ‘feudocracy’ could prevail instead of democracy.

Out of the 72 years of our existence, we have had about 40 years of democracy and 32 years of military rule. It is shameful that the average GDP growth rate under military rules has been a very respectable 6.3 percent of GDP but under 40 years of democratic rule it has averaged far less. The need of the hour is to do away with the present system of governance that has brought nothing but misery to the people, and introduce a presidential system of democracy.

A key factor in socio-economic development is the status of education, particularly higher education. Spectacular successes were achieved by the Higher Education Commission in its earlier years after 2002, with the emphasis on quality rather than numbers. There were four editorials published in the world’s top journal, ‘Nature’, praising the reforms. The most prestigious scientific institution in the world, the Royal Society (London) published a book on science in the Islamic world where Pakistan’s higher education reforms were mentioned as the model for other countries to follow.

Several of our universities were ranked among the top 250-500 universities of the world, according to Times Higher Education rankings. Praise was showered by neutral international bodies and experts for the HEC reforms introduced in 2002-2008 which had a profound impact on the quality of education and research in Pakistan.

Alas, the institution failed to keep up the momentum achieved in the earlier years in terms of faculty development and other key programmes. For instance, its programme to send 1500 students to US universities, initiated about five years ago, failed badly as the HEC succeeded in sending only 40 students, and the programme collapsed. The largest number of foreign scholarships awarded in the last five years by the HEC were not to the US, UK, Germany, Sweden or other advanced countries but to Hungary, indicating its current preference for numbers instead of quality. The funds being spent to promote research programmes have dwindled, creating an agonizing situation for researchers, many of whom have left the country in utter frustration.

There has been a mushrooming of substandard universities for political mileage. For example, six universities are to be built in Punjab with only one billion rupees allocated for each. This is a huge eyewash, as building a good small university now costs 15-20 billion rupees. Universities are not just brick and mortar.

The heart of a university is a top-class faculty with an excellent research environment. The training of 300 PhD level faculty members alone for each university would alone cost over Rs4 billion. The prime minister needs to personally look into this farce of new university development in Punjab and stop it with immediate effect. Unless the proliferation of mediocrity is arrested, the damage being done will soon become irreversible. The prime minister also needs to personally oversee the revival of the higher education sector and offer additional financial support to the HEC to boost innovation and research in universities.

The writer is the former chairman of the HEC, and president of the Network of Academies of Science of OIC Countries (NASIC).