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October 25, 2020

Destabilising inequalities

Business

October 25, 2020

LAHORE: Pakistan accumulated $17 billion foreign debt in 22 months from August 2018 to June 2020 without really rolling any development project - a dubious record unmatched in our history.

The mantra that the loans were used to service past loans is not true, because during this period the government returned foreign loans worth $9 billion only. Where did the remaining $8 billion go? Certainly, these loans were not used for development, but mostly for consumption.

There is no doubt that numerous mega projects have been announced, but they are non-starters like the five million houses for the poor. The amount allocated is meagre and the delivery after two years is zero.

We re-launched the Basha Dam project in the same way as the past Musharraf, PPP and PML-N governments did without arranging the massive funds needed for this project.

We did spend taxpayers money on public appeasing measures like shelter homes, increasing the allocation for Benazir Income Support Program (renamed as Ehsaas), and delivering poultry birds in rural areas to poor families (most birds perished as it was not possible to control disease in open rearing).

We spent a substantial amount on enlisting 700,000 strong Tiger Force (as claimed by the government). The Islamabad High Court had to take cognizance of Tiger Force convention arranged at Convention Centre Islamabad. State sponsored Tiger Force, are the volunteers of PTI that enjoy more powers than some bureaucrats.

No new motorway projects were initiated from these huge loans. Even those motorways that were almost complete when this government assumed power were inaugurated after 12-18 months to indicate that these projects belonged to PTI.

The Orange Line Train was 90 percent complete when the previous government relinquished power. In fact, the main project was complete, only finishing work at some stations was to be done.

It took this government 26 months to complete this patch work. The project would be open for public on October 26.

It shows the non-seriousness of PTI towards projects of public goods. It also shows that the abnormal delay in BRT Peshawar was not an isolated process.

It is in the genes of this government to delay the development work. It is not that the state is incapable of doing development on fast track.

The Kartarpur project was completed in record time as the prime minister was personally interested in its quick opening. This spirit had to be exhibited for all projects by the prime minister and the chief ministers.

Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif took personal interest in establishing power projects in record time and at lowest cost. He used his experience and knowledge from Lahore-Islamabad Motorway to extend it throughout the country in record time.

The travel time from Karachi to Lahore has been reduced from 22 hours to 14 hours. If the much-delayed motorway portion from Sukker to Hyderabad is completed the travel time would reduce to 11 hours.

But that is not the priority of this government as it would benefit the people, reduce delivery time of goods from Karachi to upcountry and accelerate economic activities. The former chief minister was so focused on timely completion of projects that he forced Chinese government to coin the term Punjab speed for earliest completion of projects.

This government is not interested in consultation.

It floats an idea and asks for suggestions. The suggestions that are critical are rejected and the original idea is implemented.

Consultation in fact is very rare. You cannot deliver sustainable development without understanding how effective, accountable public authority evolves through a political process of bargaining between elites, as well as between the state and organised groups in society.

Decentralisation is good and way forward if the process is executed prudently. There should be checks and balances in the system that should ensure that planners do not deviate from prudence. Unplanned decentralisation, however, could consolidate local inequalities and elite capture.

We must find legitimate ways to help citizens to engage in different dimensions of the policy process. Only focusing on pro-poor policies and leaving out the middle class from the development process needs to be re-examined. Also, just focusing on market-oriented reforms in service provision would also not necessarily improve basic services and their delivery for the masses.

Involving citizens in service delivery reform to improve accountability is a good approach if it includes the poor. It is necessary to implement reforms in ways that create opportunities for collective action. We should also seek to develop tax systems to build the state’s administrative and economic capacity. Progressive taxation properly linked to expenditure, can improve legitimacy through redistribution that tackles politically destabilising inequalities.