The Punjab potential

As the first woman chief minister of the Punjab, Maryam Nawaz Sharif could very well bring about a change

The Punjab potential


aryam Nawaz Sharif has assumed office as chief minister of Pakistan’s most populated province, the Punjab, amid election-related controversy. She has plenty of challenges ahead and some of those need to be met on a war footing – in the first 100 days or so – for her to be able to prove that as chief minister she can deliver better than her predecessors.

Inflation is squeezing the economy of lower, lower-middle and middle classes in Pakistan. Most of them live in the Punjab as the province is home to more than half of the country’s population. The problem is the rising prices of daily use items, including edibles, with a parallel increase in the prices of fuel, electricity and gas. Vendors in retail markets justify high prices by blaming those on the appreciation of the US dollar and depreciation of the Pakistani rupee. Once the dollar goes up, the prices of daily use commodities also surge but when the dollar depreciates, the prices don’t come down.

Maryam appears to be on her toes. Before assuming office, she held detailed meetings with experts on economy, bureaucrats and senior politicians, including the likes of her father Nawaz Sharif and Ishaq Dar. After thorough consideration, she has activated price-control committees in the Punjab, which is a good strategy for controlling prices, increased by black marketeers, middlemen and hoarders. To be effective, the price-control committees have to work with honesty and dedication.

In the Punjab, farms to mandi (markets) prices of fruits and vegetables sound reasonable. However, once these items reach shops, the prices rise manifold. It has been observed that price control committees and market committees, constituted in the past, failed to perform their roles because of vested interests and lack of commitment to public welfare. The chief minister will have to develop a mechanism to monitor the performance of these committees. If she manages to control the prices of edible items, breaking the hegemony of the suppliers and middlemen, it would be a success story which would provide relief, especially to those, living close to the poverty line.

The Punjab potential

The second challenge is the law and order situation. The high incidence of robberies, murders, theft, land-grab and religion-related hate crime asks for special attention. Since the ruling elite in the Punjab depends on police officials and police stations for political clout, they try to address issues relating to poor performance of the officials in a manner that avoids holding them to account. The chief minister, in her maiden speech on the Punjab Assembly’s floor, pledged to follow only merit. She must form a team of independent experts to evaluate the police officials’ performance and should bring honest, efficient and people-friendly officials forward. For police stations, she has taken the first step and directed the IGP to create a female desk at every police station.

She should also introduce a policy of ruthless accountability against land grabbers, who fund various political forces and have allies in the bureaucracy, the judiciary and the media. If she sets a precedent and manages to control land grab, it will set a good precedent. For this purpose, she will have to pay special attention to the Revenue Department.

It is feared that bureaucratic hurdles will be a major challenge for Maryam. Influential bureaucrats have been accused of misleading chief ministers and trying to prevent them from taking radical course-correction measures. She will have to put in place a check and balance system for the bureaucracy by including disciplined and honest people in her cabinet. She should also form people-government liaison committees to help her monitor the bureaucracy’s performance.

Last but not the least, the health sector will be a challenge for Maryam. Government hospitals in the Punjab no longer function with the standards set by her uncle Shahbaz Sharif during his tenure. Caretaker chief minister Mohsin Naqvi ordered the construction of new wards and hospitals in various parts of the Punjab but the availability of doctors and medicines remained a problem. In the first 100 days, Maryam will do well to restore the mechanism of free treatment in public hospitals and eradicate mafias from the health sector.

Reforms to change the police culture will be another challenge. Successive governments have tried to bring about reforms in one of the most corrupt departments of the Punjab but have failed because of political hurdles. Maryam could change that. Several police officials with good reputation have written papers and plans about reforms that could be taken in the Police Department. She should take the revolutionary step and claim credit.

The writer is a senior journalist, teacher of journalism, writer and analyst. His X handle: @BukhariMubasher

The Punjab potential