The way ahead

There is a dire need for focus on social justice

The way ahead


he new coalition government will have little financial space. It will have to rely on loans for almost all its initiatives. The situation could ease a little if the government ensure good governance, demonstrating a commitment to social justice, privatization of burdensome state enterprises, tax compliance and accountability.

Many of the problems faced by Pakistan currently are on account of poor governance. In well-governed societies the political leaders simply outline their priorities. The rest is left to the bureaucracy. If the policies are in conflict with the law, the bureaucrats inform the government leaders and do not obey that part. The bureaucrats are bound to obey all legal orders of the ruling party but they refuse to obey illegal orders.

In Pakistan, the bureaucracy tends to obey all commands of the party or person in power. This allows all kinds of criminals to find patrons among the political class who then ensure their protection. For this, senior bureaucrats get to enjoy similar impunity and many develop rent networks.

Many laws have been enacted by the parliament to improve governance that are not enforced in letter and spirit. By and large, the quality and consistency of enforcement depends on the wishes of the government leaders. The law takes its course when the poor violate it but influential people may sometimes have room to violate it and not be penalized for that. Luxury cars violating traffic rules without being apprehended is a common sight but when a motorcyclist violates the same rule he is apprehended.

The rich get gas and power connections promptly; the poor have to wait for months. The utility company rules state that every applicant will get a connection within a specified time. There are many formalities and procedural requirements that influential people get through in a day. The poor take a long time meeting the same requirements.

Good governance means that the rules are followed uniformly. If someone violates a rule, they are held accountable. Governance cannot be improved without strict accountability. Governance improves greatly with greater transparency. In theory, every citizen should be served on a first come, first served basis. However, rich first and poor later seems to be the norm in Pakistan.

Those violating the rules frequently have found opaque ways of bypassing the checks. At NADRA centres, for example, the applicants are asked to form a queue and register electronically. To serve the VIPs or those willing to pay bribes, the clerk at the window registers them without joining the queue. The queue is, thus, bypassed and many people get served ahead of others because of their influence.

The authorities are aware of this practice but have made no move to rectify the situation. Identifying every applicant by name an electronic display is a simple solution. Some people might consider this a minor issue but the practice is everywhere.

Most people will hesitate to break rules if they are punished for their crime. If a government officer breaks a rule and the system is transparent, he can be removed from that position and fined. In case of a repeat offence, he can be sacked. Fair and strict accountability is the only way to ensure good governance.

Surprise raids are an outdated method to bring about improvement in administration. Many more electronic inspections can be carried out in a day. Technology allows and enables a lot more monitoring than physical visits.

Good governance and electronic vigilance can reduce the expenditure on internal security, including security of the political leaders, top bureaucrats and police officials. It is unfortunate that even DSPs need vehicular security and police stations block footpaths using concrete barriers.

Surprise raids are an outdated method for bringing about improvement in administration. Electronic tools now permit many more inspections in a day and a lot more monitoring. 

A glaring example of negligent vigilance is the non-functioning CCTV cameras installed in Lahore to monitor city roads and neighborhoods.

The absence of social justice invites rebellion by those deprived of their fair share of opportunities. The elite need security because the dispossessed consider them responsible for their woes. The deprived segment of the society sees nothing coming its way even if they shun radicalism.

Some political leaders and a tiny percentage of the rich and the influential fan hatred among the have-nots with their lavish lifestyle. Social injustice has made most of the population insensitive to many societal ills. Many people throw their garbage in water channels because many industrialists do the same with impunity. Many dig up public roads without informing the municipality and steal electric power.

In many squatter settlements and slums there are a lot of unauthorized electric connections. The consumers are desperate and aggressive. They do not allow the utility officials to disconnect their electricity connection. Some of them justify their behavior by comparing it with offices, factories and elite residences where they work and where power theft is rampant.

Social justice means policies and actions that create equal access to opportunity. Politicians must be answerable for the life they live on government expense as well as their own resources when they are not in power. Organising large rallies, public meetings and sit-ins to block highways by siphoning off public resources is a crime. The poor willingly become these activities and face police brutalities as street agitation gives them the opportunity to vent their anger against injustices they face daily.

There is a dire need for change which must start with a focus on social justice. If people see their prime minister living in a two bedroom house, like the British PM at 10 Downing Street. They will love to see their rulers using public transport, instead of moving around in a fleet of luxury cars and blocking traffic for the common man.

The public sector is typically less efficient than the private sector. In Pakistan, public sector enterprises eat a huge chunk of the national resources as they incur losses worth trillions of rupees every year. Pakistan Steel, though closed, still costs the government billions of rupees monthly. The PIA’s assets are a fraction of its liabilities. All efforts to revamp the airline have ended up incurring more losses. If we cannot privatise it, we should close it down.

As it is, public sector enterprises are a lucrative posting place for bureaucrats and ruling party favorites. The salaries and perks match or are higher than in the private sector and there is no accountability for bad performance. The government should ban all bureaucrats from the PSEs and their boards. It should also remove all political appointees and put these entities for privatisation at the earliest.

Now that the power tariffs are high many private investors will be willing to buy distribution companies. They will make windfall profits if corruption can be curbed. The private sector can probably do it but rent seekers in the public sector do want their illegal incomes stopped.

The government’s revenue shortfall is mind blowing. The fiscal deficit is over Rs 3 trillion besides the losses incurred by the public sector companies. Taxation is no rocket science. However, no great improvement in collection can be expected as long as tax evaders roam free.

A ten-storied plaza dares tax officials to come and collect the tax. The luxury cars owned by thousands of non-taxpayers challenge the tax collectors to muster the courage to question them. Thousands of professionals pay nominal amounts rather than their actual due because of their influence and respect in the society.

It is, indeed, a tragedy that tax-evaders smugglers, short filers and lawyers command respect from the society while honest officials are looked down upon.

All tax exemptions should be abolished. The tax machinery should be replaced with new faces.

The writer is a senior economic reporter at The News

The way ahead