Pakistan at Crossroads By Malik Tariq Ali

THERE comes a time in the history of every nation, and it seems this moment has arrived for Pakistan, that change must come, starting from the top. Business as usual, is no longer an option. Our economy is in shatters, because of our own follies and it cannot be blamed on fate, nor on circumstances beyond our control. Even the MD IMF has pointed out basic flaws in our economy and unequivocally told us that we must “Tax the Rich and Give Subsidies only to poor”. If we persist with status quo and refrain from uniformly imposing taxes on Real Estate sector, where black money is parked, or Retail sector etc for exclusive benefit of powerful few, this country will be engulfed in an economic cobweb which will create unrest and threaten our national security from within.

The anger on the streets over electricity bills is definitely orchestrated by vested political interest groups, but there is also substance for frustration and anger in terms of increase in unit charges and indirect taxation etc. Other than a reasonable levy of GST, all other deductions need to be reviewed. Successive governments, both civil and dictators, have failed to stop theft of electricity which runs into hundreds of billions of rupees and ignored as line losses. Everybody who matters in the corridors of power is aware of identity of those involved in this heist, but their own Conflicts of Interest prevent any punitive measures or recovery. The emphasis should have been on shifting energy production to indigenous sources, but then again, conflicts of interest of powerful few prevail.

Pakistan and its powerful institutions must realize the gravity of the situation and the anger that is building up. In 2014 those who facilitated the 126-day Dharna, with 24/7 live coverage telecasting images of Electricity Bills being burned, today see this happening. Remember calls for stopping remittances through banking channels and instead prefer Hawala or Hundi. The widening gap between Open Market and Interbank Rate of US$, serves as an incentive to those who remit their savings to support their dependents living in Pakistan, to prefer alternate channels that exist and are functional. The Finance Ministry can and should bridge this gap for those who remit, to encourage remittances through proper banking, but they are not doing it. Perhaps, it suits the powerful few involved in reverse flow of foreign exchange, transferring their back money to safe havens, where their assets and families are already settled. It is like the proverbial Cat being assigned to guard the milk.

The unchecked population explosion, a byproduct of appeasing extremist religious lobbies, coupled with continuous shrinking of irrigable agriculture producing areas, converted into concrete jungle by Real Estate Mafia and the organized smuggling of basic food items across borders are a recipe for disaster. Chaos is bound to engulf this country and jeopardize the future of over 240 million citizens, for whom this is their motherland, where they will live and die. Those responsible for this abuse of power, have abandoned this country, lock stock and barrel, and moved abroad alongwith their assets and family, after having benefitted the most from opportunities offered to them by Pakistan.

There will be very few such examples where men holding sensitive posts in Iran, India, Malaysia etc have been facilitated to migrate abroad. Even to this date, this continues. One can understand the immigration of educated and qualified youths who are not offered opportunities, but not those who benefitted the most from Pakistan. Even after taking Oath of Allegiance and revoking their previous loyalty that they may have held, many of them continue to enjoy perks of their previous employment, including eligibility for allotment of plots, pension etc although they are recipient of social security benefits of their newly adopted countries of permanent residence. Those who have been at helm of this country from mid-50s to the present day, cannot absolve themselves of their responsibilities for failures that confront us today.

Our geo-strategic location should have been used to promote trade and commerce with countries in the region, given our access to warm waters, instead of getting involved in proxy wars or providing client services in the cold war era of 50s to 80s. When the elephants fight, the ants and all else that comes in the way get trampled. Individuals who were at helm from 1956 onwards benefitted, some more than the others, but Pakistan suffered.

It seems the elite of this country became addicted to seeking foreign aid and grants for services rendered, but once the purpose of the foreign powers was achieved and their stated objectives achieved, they left. We cannot blame the superpowers for abandoning Pakistan, but the onus of blame is on those who betrayed our trust. Some got Ghandhara Motors, others siphoned off billions of CIA funds provided to wage proxy war in Afghanistan, but the people of Pakistan ended up inheriting a legacy of terrorism, extremism, private militias armed with Kalashnikovs, drugs, ethnic and sectarian division and a variety of ills that haunt this country. Our economy suffered and our human resources started depleting.

The very basics of an economically viable and functional state, is that its revenues derived from taxation, exports etc., must be more than its expenditure or break even. A deficit is a cause for alarm and enough to give a message that the status quo cannot persist. As if this was not enough of a crisis, the criminal takeover of green irrigable land by powerful land developers and the real estate mafia, are displacing millions of peasants who lived there for centuries and earned their two meals a day, tilling the land, being denied their sole source of earning. These jobless peasants, most of them illiterate, are moving to densely populated urban areas, which are already overcrowded, offering hardly any job opportunities.

One of the most effective programs for Poverty Alleviation was the Vocational Training Institutes created in the 80s to train poor youths to earn a livelihood in varying trades like Plumbing, Electrician, Air Conditioning, Motor Mechanic, Tailoring, First Aid, Makeup etc., is today in disarray. It has become hostage to bureaucracy and criminal negligence in the name of cost cutting, where trades offered and number of trainees are being slashed, without any cuts in administrative setup and costs. The Punjab Provincial Government must move in by drastically undertaking reforms and restructuring, laying off dead wood at helm and replace them urgently. Other provinces must provide for effective vocational training which will curtail chances of exploiting these youths and their radicalization. No system of governance can survive without a basic welfare system in place.

—The writer is contributing columnist, based in Lahore.


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