An economic plan?
THE State Bank governor, Reza Baqir, used the occasion of a flag-hoisting ceremony on Aug 14 to try and breathe a little life into the economy by assuring the country that the direction in which things were moving was the correct one. He acknowledged the difficulties faced by firms and people in the form of rising inflation and unemployment amid a slowing economy, but sought to reassure his audience that the government was working on a ‘plan’ to help the economy turn the corner and return to the path of growth. No indication was given of the time that was required for this, nor was there any hint of what the plan looked like. For the moment, it seems the message is that there is nothing to be done except let the medicine administered by the new economic team take effect.
Missing through all this has been the voice of the adviser to the prime minister on finance. Hafeez Shaikh has now retreated into the background from where he silently calls the shots. As layoffs sweep the country, companies teeter on the edge of bankruptcy and people find their livelihoods squeezed almost to breaking point, the doctor supposedly administering the medicine is barely seen or heard from. There is little doubt that difficult decisions have to be made, and that the pain will continue for a while longer. But Mr Shaikh’s job is also to breathe confidence into the economy during this period of painful adjustment. To not be visible, then, surely amounts to a dereliction of duty.
If what Mr Baqir said about the economic team’s working on a plan to help revive the economy is correct, we should also hear this directly from the finance adviser. Important questions must be answered. Who is putting together this plan? Is it being developed by a small group of people in a closed room somewhere? Is there any stakeholder consultation involved in drawing it up? And more importantly, what will be the pace and direction of economic growth once the time comes to implement this plan? Pakistan’s economy has been through far too many short-lived spurts of growth, followed by catastrophic busts that land the country at the doorstep of the IMF. The government has promised on numerous occasions that the current IMF programme would be Pakistan’s last, so perhaps it would be helpful to know whether the so-called plan that is in the works is part of delivering on this promise. It is important to share the details with the public, and to know from those in charge of the economy where they stand on the promises made by the last finance minister. Adjustment is not the only thing the economy needs. It also needs transparency and visible leadership — both of which are missing at the moment.
ONE of the singular characteristics of a country’s drift towards autocracy is an increasing curtailment of citizens’ access to sources of information and communication. When the flow of diverse opinions and ideas is restricted, state propaganda is allowed free rein.
Read: India tops world with most internet shutdowns: report
The findings in a report by an advocacy group working on a free and open internet, and a global coalition that tracks internet shutdowns across the world, gain heightened relevance in the context of recent regional developments.
According to the document, India was responsible for 134 out of 196 internet shutdowns across the world in 2018 — a whopping 67pc of the total. The country heads the list of deliberate shutdowns since 2015: that, significantly enough, is only one year after Narendra Modi, no champion of democratic ideals, first became prime minister.
Consider the frequency of shutdowns and the signs of an unravelling democracy become even clearer.
In 2018, as per the report, there were twice as many internet shutdowns in India as in 2017 and nearly three times that in 2016. The tactic was employed more often in India-held Kashmir and the states of Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, and Maharashtra than in 22 other states combined; IHK is currently enduring its 53rd shutdown. (A recent Stanford University study found that 47pc of shutdowns that occurred last year targeted IHK.) Asia and Africa account for the most shutdowns worldwide; Pakistan is a distant second after India with 12 such events.
The fact that governments, even ostensibly democratic ones that espouse the right to freedom of speech and information, acknowledge the shutdowns less than 40pc of the time illustrates an inherent and growing tendency towards authoritarianism.
When states do seek to justify such actions, the most common pretexts according to the report are “public safety, ‘fake news’ or hate speech and related violence, national security, and school exams”. More often than not, however, these stated justifications — most of them ostensibly for the public’s own ‘good’ — are a fig leaf to suppress coverage of protests and prevent human rights abuses from coming to light.
Despotic governments indeed have much to fear from the internet — after all, Twitter and Facebook help propel the discontent in the Middle East into what became the Arab Spring. In IHK, previous internet shutdowns as well as the continuing communications blackout that encompasses internet, mobile and telephone services jive perfectly with a government determined to crush the Kashmiris’ freedom struggle through brute force.