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June 11, 2021

Budget for whom?

As Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government prepares to announce an ambitious budget on Friday (today), the gaping hole surrounding a large segment of key stakeholders remains unaddressed – the fate of average households increasingly pressed in tackling their own budget.

On the eve of the national budget, a popular lament across Pakistan’s mainstream surrounds the matter of increasingly overstretched household budgets. These have been pushed well beyond reasonable limits as the government has repeatedly failed to address the challenges faced by Pakistan’s middle to low income families.

Since Khan’s maiden entry to the Islamabad power scene in 2018, his government has failed to address this challenge. Consequently, soaring prices of food commodities have repeatedly haunted ordinary households in spite of official promises to tackle this challenge immediately.

In the past, Prime Minister Khan appeared on Pakistan’s TV channels, sharing his concerns over the matter of food prices and ordering his cabinet colleagues to immediately provide remedy. Yet to date, little has been achieved by way of the corrective action.

The challenge surrounding the economy is just in part linked to the finance ministry in Islamabad which holds the key to the nation’s fiscal and developmental policies. On the contrary, the challenge mainly remains embedded in the framework of the provinces where authority was further devolved under the 18th Constitutional Amendment.

The Punjab province ruled by Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) must assume the bulk of the responsibility, as home to over 60 per cent of Pakistan’s population. Led by Khan’s hand-picked and blindly backed chief minister Usman Buzdar, the crisis of governance that has undermined the economy, is centralised across the Punjab province.

The Khan government has recently sought to put a heavy gloss on the economic picture with the sudden claim of a significant jump in economic growth, leaving many independent economists in disbelief. But even if this hard-to-believe official claim is taken on face value, the challenge surrounding the economy simply fails to go away across the grassroots of Pakistan.

As the Punjab is central to Pakistan’s provincial setup, the country’s future economic prosperity cannot be divorced from trends across the province. Anecdotal evidence from across the Punjab speaks volumes over a continued failure of key departments – notably food, irrigation and agriculture in fulfilling their tasks with flying colours. In a financial year that ends this month, where the cotton crop simply failed, the jump in agricultural growth is justifiably taken with a pinch of salt.

But beyond the numbers, the quality of governance continues to leave Pakistanis at the grassroots increasingly sceptical. Going forward as the new budget is set to be announced on Friday, the Khan government is heading to present an ambitious plan for Pakistan’s future. But there are good reasons for sceptics to remain in disbelief. This is after all the same ruling structure that came to power in 2018, led by Khan as he promised to create a ‘Naya’ or ‘New’ Pakistan.

Today, that promised new land is waiting to even begin to happen. An ambitious rise in development spending on Friday or incentives in areas like lower costs for small cars or support for the construction sector - reportedly at the centre of the official thinking, will hardly make a difference to Pakistan’s average household.

In sharp contrast, the difference will occur with a revamp of the ruling structure of government that eventually makes a difference to the grassroots of Pakistan. Meanwhile, tough decisions on long pending matters will be one of the key litmus tests for the Khan government’s ability to break fresh ground.

At the centre of the many ailments surrounding Pakistan, one remains the matter of Pakistan’s chronically dysfunctional public sector companies that have bled the national exchequer for decades. So far it appears, the government seems to be focused on bailouts to fix such corporates like the Pakistan International Airlines or the PIA.

Unless dramatic and radical solutions are embraced very soon, more of the same will hardly make a difference to Pakistan’s future. Just ahead of Friday’s budget, a disastrous train accident in southern Pakistan that took many precious lives, and the increasing occurrence of electricity cuts as temperatures soar together speak volumes about a country in terrible need of progressive change. And of course, Pakistan’s average and low income households may have already braced to be disappointed yet again with Friday’s national budget.