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Monday July 15, 2024

Governance and the PTI

By I Hussain
March 21, 2022

The finest moment for the embattled PTI government over the last four years has been

its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.

With a combination of good policy and good luck, Pakistan has so far navigated the pandemic much better in terms of having a lower mortality rate than most other countries. This despite the country having a lower vaccination rate and being saddled with a below par surveillance, testing, and treatment infrastructure.

Thus cumulative confirmed deaths per million population as of March 9 2022 were 134 in Pakistan compared to 175 in Bangladesh, 370 in India, 403 in Nepal, 761 in Sri Lanka, and 1628 in Iran. Comparable figures for the UK and US are 2384 and 2895 deaths per million population, respectively. (https://ourworldindata.org/covid-deaths).

An important welfare enhancing measure at the height of the pandemic was the PTI-sponsored Ehsaas emergency cash transfer program initiated in March 2020. This was intended to sustain low income families at a critical time when many jobs, particularly in the services sector, had been lost.

Under the Ehsaas programme, a stipend of Rs12000 was disbursed to 15 million qualifying households which meant that almost half the country’s population was given some emergency relief.

The World Bank in its appraisal of social protection schemes undertaken worldwide due to Covid-19 hailed the Ehsaas programme and ranked it fourth among all emergency assistance programmes that it studied in terms of the percentage of population covered. Despite the fiscal constraints Pakistan faced, the programme was successful because of the efficiency with which it was implemented and because it reached the beneficiaries swiftly and directly.

That said, the battle against Covid-19 is not yet over even though there has been a sharp decrease in the number of new infections. There is therefore a need to remain vigilant.

The risk of new variants of SARS-CoV-2 emerging is a significant threat worldwide, particularly as vaccination rates in low-income countries are still too low. Currently about 75 percent of persons over 12 years of age in low-income countries have yet to receive even one dose of the vaccine. This is a matter of concern. According to virologists, every new infection is a potential source of a mutation.

Therefore, it is essential that the federal and provincial governments continue to keep testing facilities up to scratch and procure and stockpile sufficient vaccine doses so as to inoculate the entire population to the extent possible. Vaccines will also be needed to provide booster shots since the protection offered by the current vaccines on offer appears to wane after a few months.

Inflation is now a worldwide phenomenon and since we import many of our raw materials and intermediate components this will adversely impact the domestic price level. A depreciating exchange rate only compounds the impact of global inflation which has hit the population particularly hard when added to the strictures of the IMF-backed adjustment programme. Take petrol as an example. A cross-country examination of petrol prices prevailing in the week ending March 14, 2022 shows that to fill a 40 liter tank of petrol in Pakistan costs 33.8 percent of monthly per capita income using World Bank data on per capita incomes.

Out of 119 countries for which affordability data has been collated, Pakistan ranks 104th in terms of the burden of petrol prices for a person on average income. The only Asian countries in which petrol is even less affordable than in Pakistan are Cambodia, Myanmar, and Nepal.

To mitigate the impact of rising international crude oil prices by reducing petrol prices through administrative fiat is, however, untenable. This is because the cost of subsidies for the government will skyrocket if, as expected, oil prices stay at elevated levels due to sanctions on exports of Russian oil.

Another disadvantage is that of worsening income inequality as the benefit of the across the board price reduction of Rs10 per liter accrues mainly to high-income groups that tend to use far greater quantities of petrol.

Food price inflation will add to the government’s problems. With Russia and Ukraine together accounting for 25-30 percent of world wheat exports and shipping at a standstill at Black Sea ports due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, wheat and maize prices are exploding on world markets. As Pakistan is planning to import three million tonnes of wheat this year, the adverse impact on the balance of payments will also be severe.

Higher natural gas and ammonia prices internationally means that fertilizer costs will rise potentially, resulting in a drop in use of fertilizer and declining crop yields. The need to provide greater subsidies on fertilizer to offset this increase will be another source of stress on the government’s budget.

In the education area, the PTI government’s focus has been on the development of the Single National Curriculum (SNC) which has, however, come in for considerable flak by many educators who don’t see it as a levelling up of standards as officially claimed but rather as a levelling down.

Revising the school curriculum is only one of the many problems facing the system of school education in Pakistan which is under siege because of systemic dysfunction. The data indicate that as many as 22 million Pakistani children of school-going age are currently not enrolled in any school. This is a human tragedy of epic proportions. Thus revamping the school curriculum will not do any good for those currently out of the education system altogether. A holistic approach is needed – combining a host of measures including provision of incentives for school enrollment, building more schools, upgrading the existing poor physical infrastructure of schools, improvement in teaching methods, etc.

Unnecessary controversy was caused by the termination of the services of the chairperson of the Higher Education Commission (HEC) before the end of his term of appointment. The person in question, Dr Tariq Banuri, is a highly credentialed economist having earned a doctorate from Harvard University. Moreover, he was selected for the position by a widely respected panel of educationists and business persons who had no political axe to grind. Their choice of candidate for the chairperson’s position was motivated solely by considerations of merit.

Dr Banuri’s requirement that universities and research centers provide an account of research productivity for funds allocated to them rankled many in the higher education and research establishment not accustomed to answering such questions about the relevance of their research activities for the country. On appeal against his arbitrary dismissal, Dr Banuri was reinstated by the Supreme Court. This episode was an own goal by the PTI government and cast doubts on its stated desire to champion merit in the matter of government appointments.

Plans are now afoot to have a no-confidence motion passed by the National Assembly so as to send the PTI government packing. What is noteworthy about this political move is that none of the members of the opposition parties intent on Imran Khan’s removal has announced any plan about what they intend to do if they succeed in their aim.

Should the no-confidence motion pass and a new government be formed, what economic measures are proposed to improve living standards? Where will the money for any proposed relief measures come from?

Pakistani voters would do well to remember the definition of insanity attributed to Einstein: doing the same things over and over and expecting different results.

The writer is a group director at the Jang Group. He can be reached at:

iqbal.hussain@janggroup.com.pk