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Fleeting moments

March 4, 2020

How much patience?

Opinion

March 4, 2020

President Dr Arif Alvi recently attended a reception arranged by one of the country’s leading industrialists in Lahore. Lahore-based prominent industrialists and businessmen attended the reception and showed serious concern about the economic slowdown, resulting in the loss of jobs. They suggested that the government take urgent measures to revive the economy.

The president in his address said the government was aware of the economic difficulties the country faced, but assured that the worst was over and that there were positive signals indicating the eventual improvement of economy. He also advised the business community to show patience. However, the employment situation shows no signs of improvement if we go by what an eminent economist Dr Hafeez Pasha recently predicted. He said one million people had lost their jobs last year and that 1.2 million will likely lose their jobs this year because of the sagging economy.

Even if we ignore the unemployment figures quoted by Dr Pasha – even though he is apolitical – the situation on ground doesn’t seem promising. The economic activity in the country has come to a standstill. Our exports have dwindled. The exports by this nuclear-armed country of ours have been quoted little higher than war-torn countries like Afghanistan, Ethiopia and Yemen. Even Vietnam and Bangladesh have left us far behind in exports.

The national economy doesn’t seem to occupy a position of high importance in the government's list of priorities. TV talk shows are dominated by representatives of opposite political parties who scoff at each to score points instead of indulging in positive discussions about the national economy that forms the backbone of any country. Was it not Bill Clinton who said ‘it’s the economy, stupid!’

However, when it suggested that we privatise one of the major loss-makers, PIA, the president chose not to comment. Taxpayers have a right to ask why PIA is treated as a jewel in the national crown. Are PIA, Pakistan Steel Mills and Pakistan Railways charity organisations that deserve public tax money to keep them running year after year?

Paying income tax out of their hard-earned income pinches every taxpayer. But the ensuing second thought provides the answer. Since this land affords the taxpayers an opportunity to earn hence it’s their civic duty as responsible citizens to pay taxes to run the affairs of the government. After paying taxes, the responsibility of the taxpayers ends and that of the government begins. Is it not incumbent upon every government to ensure that public taxes are spent prudently and for public wellbeing? Is maintaining huge loss-makers like PIA, Pakistan Steel Mills and Railways by pumping billions into them to keep them going in public interest?

PIA and Pakistan Railways are known for making news however unnerving, such as a plane’s door going ajar when in flight or frequent train accidents and derailment of bogies but the PSM never makes it to the news. It’s quiet on the PSM front because it has remained shut since 2015 and its employees have been pocketing salaries amounting to Rs380 million each month, which the taxpayers find unsettling.

After taking over PIA as its CEO, Air Marshal Arshad Malik gave us good news in November last year that the airline’s monthly loss had been reduced from Rs3 billion to Rs1.5 billion. As if draining 1.5 billion of public taxes monthly was a matter of little consequence for keeping thirty odd planes in the air.

As a matter of right, taxpayers would like know why every government should want to keep the loss-making state-controlled entities under its control. An explanation given is that powerful labour unions in these organisations do not allow the government to privatise them. But the commonly held public perception is that powerful interest groups, including politicians, frustrate every move to privatise the top heavy and overemployed state entities.

Since the present government claims to enhance the tax base by increasing the number of taxpayers, the taxpayer­s in return expect the government to treat their taxes as a sacred trust. Taxes should go in the right direction instead of being flaunted on unnecessary projects and maintaining the ostentatious lifestyle of public officials. For example, a 130ft wide and 60ft high under-construction eyesore, near the NAB regional office on Multan Road is only causing nuisance in traffic flow.

The writer is a freelance columnist based in Lahore.

Email: [email protected]