Our existential threat – 19 Mar 2023
What does the constitution say? How is it to be interpreted? Who gets to rule; who knows what to do and how best to do it; who is corrupt and who sits on the altar of piety?
Do we have the luxury of debating endlessly over this? What happens after whoever, whenever and however comes into power with a mandate? Will they set us on track?
The more important question is why the current government is unable to deliver. With or without a mandate, there is a government in place after all. And most important: where do we go from here?
What if elections take place? How will they improve the basic fault lines of governance and our economy? One scenario could be the success of the PTI in the election and the other could be the victory of the parties on the other side? Let’s please be honest and assess if either of those scenarios are comforting enough for us to be confident of Pakistan getting on track towards prosperity. Lack of tolerance and faith in our democratic electoral process; terrible levels of polarization in political society and pervasive intolerance bordering on enmity instead of co- existence have torn the fabric of society in Pakistan. Not only do we need a break but we all need to sit down, take a deep breath and agree on a minimal agenda of reconstructing Pakistan. If we don’t, we are not going to exist. Let’s not mince words: Pakistan faces an existential threat.
So, what are those few things that need to happen with a national consensus? Foremost is a very strong and uniform local government system in place in all provinces. Bureaucrats can function up to a certain level but people need to identify their communal needs and meet those themselves. All of us are innovative enough to know how best our schools can be run, how our mohallas can be cleaned and how we can drink clean water. I don’t think it can get worse than the current situation. We are at rock bottom with our population surge and dwindling governance structure.
Another priority could be to dispose of the minimum controlling stake of all state owned enterprises in two years – all DISCOs, PIA, Steel Mills etc. It happened with PTCL; aren’t we better off without the baboos and politicians controlling it? Privatization of PTCL with a strong deregulation of the telecom sector created competition across the sector which translated into colossal benefits for consumers. It is probably the only well-thought-out policy intervention that has sustained growth and led to major advancement in telecom facilities.
We need the same kind of policy for our electric companies that have been draining our resources in the form of circular debt. The baboos and mafia within these DISCOs are getting richer by at least three quarters the amount of the circular debt every year. In less than one year as power minister under PM Khaqan Abbasi, I clearly understood that the only way out was to privatize these entities in an innovative manner along with the establishment of new companies within those areas to make diverse options available to the customers. Competition is what will drive them to efficiency. This is doable. Only those with vested interests will say it’s not.
Maybe, the most important priority is the water sector in Pakistan. A considerable amount of funds need to be invested in the water infrastructure across Pakistan along with encouragement of water and energy efficient agriculture. Water is life to us and our economy. The one single factor that could play a huge role in jump-starting our agriculture sector and thus our economy is water availability. A sustained effort to invest into raising the level of water efficiency, directing the water flows towards constructive usage instead of causing destruction and storage of water to use at appropriate times is of utmost importance in this day and age where climate change has already affected us n and where an increasing population is pushing us towards malnutrition and food shortage.
Steps for crop zoning need to be taken. What to grow in which district of Pakistan is critical so we don’t waste our capital, land and water in producing food and products inefficiently. Pakistan is among the most water inefficient countries in the world for agricultural practices for increase in produce.
An initiative for strong regulators with minimum interference by the government is needed. The permit-based culture of industry like the sugar industry is the worst case where control and mafia dominate the environment. Why shouldn’t anyone or everyone be allowed to process sugarcane in districts where crop zoning allows it to be grown? Who is the government to judge who can process it better or worse? Let market forces determine who is to stay in business.
No subsidies and support prices should be offered. Let market forces determine who is to get what as compensation for their products. If the prices are too high for the poor classes to afford and sustain their lives, they should be compensated through targeted cash subsidy programmes. Maybe the role of food departments of provinces needs to be evaluated too. All they do is buy, store and sell wheat for the government and sustain a mafia that skims off hundreds of billions of rupees every year. We are subsidizing people who don’t deserve it and keeping it away from those who need it. Perhaps, the government needs to retain a minimum buffer stock to ensure availability of critical food products to avoid shortages.
R&D programmes for all major subsectors of industry and agriculture. We cannot survive and have already started dying as sectors due to lack of technological improvement, training and innovation. Lack of new seeds and varieties that are required to cope with the challenges of climate change and consumer requirements is stifling our agriculture sector. It is time to wake up. I had laid the foundations of R&D in the IT and Telecom sector by creating an ICT R&D fund in 2005. All major sectors in Pakistan need that.
Attention needs to be given to low-cost financing to the private sector for small and medium enterprises, and farmers. Unfortunately, there is no capital available to the private sector. The government of Pakistan usurps all the financing available with the banks, leaving no room for the SME sector to get funded to grow or survive. The banks are also happy that way. There are hardly any loan officers on the payroll of banks in the rural economy these days. Armoured vans with cash are transporting cash one way and do not give any back to the rural entrepreneur or small scale businessman.
Apart from the government, there are either a handful of industrial families or groups that devour 95 per cent of the liquidity available in the banking system of Pakistan. The banks are earning easy and good money. There is no compulsion on them to loan out certain percentages of their portfolios to specific sectors to ensure uniform and good healthy growth. In European economies, the major driver of growth is the SME sector.
Population growth rate needs to be controlled at all cost. We need to incentivise and encourage people to start thinking wisely for their own betterment. A workforce and society that is better fed, better equipped, healthier and more educated is more productive and content.
We need to increase spending on health and education. We also need to introduce a preventive healthcare system. The WHO has termed a preventive healthcare system as the best for third world countries. An example of great healthcare is the healthcare system of Cuba. Policymakers need to be wary of pharmaceutical companies and lobbyists who discourage preventive healthcare. Policymakers at the government level need to make sure fewer people fall sick without succumbing to the indirect tools of influence used by the super rich pharma industry.
Last but not the least is Investing into our Youth. Human Resource is what we need to invest in across society and sectors. The level of skills is much below average in our country. We are now becoming an expensive workforce with low productivity. We need to add value to our HR and make it grow both horizontally and vertically.
We all need to agree to the above laid priorities as a nation. Our nation comprises, apart from other influential groups, representatives of the people, judiciary, armed forces, the ruling bureaucratic elite, and the media. Let’s decide that we will not do politics on these basic issues. If our nation continues to support these initiatives for the next ten years and government and non- government organizations provide a certain amount of funding to stay on track, Pakistan can overcome many of its problems. Let’s do politics on other issues.
We don’t need to wait for the elections to agree on the above agenda. All we need to do is to get into a big little room and sort it all out in less than 10 days. And let the political battle start beyond this agreed agenda and commitment. But who is going to make us all sit in that big little room? Haven’t we all been there before? Remember the Fata reforms legislation? Let’s do it again for the sake of our country. May Pakistan prosper.
The writer is a former federal minister and secretary-general of the PML-N.