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Archive for May, 1991

Budget time

Having created economic history over the past 180 days, one does not see the Nawaz Sharif Government taking its laurels from its own brow and casting it into the dust. To prepare for fresh or enhanced taxes in the Budget, the prices of all essentials and services have been quietly increased over the past few months. Others have followed the same route before Nawaz Sharif, it does not look good to tell the masses all bad news on prime-time TV and thus commit political hara-kiri, the doses of bitter medicine is usually parcelled out in small portions pre-Budget so that when the Day arrives, media-genic relief packages are announced instead of the expected additional tax burden. The masses are swept with physical relief at not being further burdened financially, they thank God for small favours and go on living their meagre existence.

The Presentation of the Budget on May 30, 1991 by Sartaj Aziz will be as important as the contents thereof. While the rendition of figures is unlikely to wow the masses, the credible way in which they are put forward will have a direct effect on its acceptability. Mian Yasin Wattoo, Junejo’s Finance Minister, had a monotonous, rambling delivery, underscoring the fact that he had nothing much to do about the Budget before, during or after its preparation. Ehsanul Haq Piracha, Ms Benazir’s FM of State, gave the impression of a cornered rabbit who was going at the task on sufferance, straining his intellectual capacities to impress an audience of only one, his PM. His occasional apprehensive side-long glances at Ms Benazir during his presentation told the whole story. During his Budget speech as Caretaker Finance Minister (delivered in the TV Studios), Permanent Finance Minister-in-waiting, Frustrated Senator Aspirant and Economic Chameleon Extraordinary, Dr.Mahbubul Haq, kept on smacking his lips for the unavailable glass of water (being month of Ramazan) while he put the fear of God into the business community, describing in graphic detail how he was going to emasculate them for non-payment of taxes in short order. His Budget speech was incentive-oriented for investment alright, all took off in the other direction for greener pastures.

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The downside of privatisation

Having endured economic hardships because of all encompassing nationalisation in the early 70s and given the sorry experience of the devastated economies of the socialist countries, the people of Pakistan have come to expect too much from the privatisation plank of the present regime. Caution has to be exercised in the swinging of the pendulum from one extreme to another. While denationalisation, deregulation and privatisation is necessary to invigorate the badly stunted economy, care must be taken to ensure that the masses do not become captive again in the greedy clutches of a handful of “robber barons” motivated by profit-only orientation. In this respect privatisation brings mixed blessings, those who have not felt the pangs of hunger, deprivation and privations can hardly be expected to be sympathetic to the miseries of the overwhelming majority of our suffering masses.

One must not be simplistic in outrightly condemning Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s sweeping nationalisation. The primary plank on which the Pakistan Peoples Party based its first manifesto, not much dissimilar to the present document, was to restore the semblance of social equality and justice to the masses, aspirations for which were deep-rooted among them. The 60s had brought tremendous industrial growth, an uneven socio-economic policy produced widespread resentment against the rich elite, made notorious by the “21 family” sobriquet. In association with Bhutto, born and raised in clover, socialism seemed to be the idle privilege of the rich, for the majority of the poor, socialism became an end ambition for sheer survival. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto captured the moment because he used his charisma to good effect to ride the crest of the mass desire. In trying to fulfil his promises, unfortunately he went too far in his sweeping nationalisation binge. Detractors, mainly industrialists, may claim that he was acting out of a targeted vengeance against them, in the final analysis he was basically sincere in his desire to ameliorate the economic miseries of the masses, thus attempting to break the handful rich may have been out of necessity to shackle their power, but not revenge.

The late 60s saw great industrial unrest, a classic progression towards anarchy and revolution. Unfortunately for Pakistan there were other centrifugal forces acting upon the body politic, economic problems took a backseat to other more momentous events. The great schism between the poor and the rich started once the vast middle class started to suffer privations normally associated with the poverty stricken only. The rich got richer, the poor simply knuckled under, ultimately the dichotomy had to give way. While nationalisation of some sectors was justified, such as rice and cotton (the economical lifeblood of our Third World nations), governments have no business trying to run industry and business. Rampant nationalisation destroyed the dynamism of private sector enterprise and forced industrialists to become traders while bureaucrats who had nothing at stake in the running of industrial and/or commercial units proceeded to live off the fat of the land, overburdening them with overheads. The Martial Law Regime was expected to turn the clock back, unfortunately the nominated Ministers of Production proceeded to fortify and even expand their fiefdoms, their penchant for glory fed by the vested interests of bureaucrats who, under the khaki cover, proceeded to loot the nationalised till blind. Having created the much touted National Logistics Cell (NLC) into a public sector colossus, Lt Gen Saeed Qadir presided over a diverse variety of nationalised and State owned industrial units as Zia’s Minister for Production, none of which should have been in the public sector. Gen Qadir is an able person, it must be graveyard humour to put him in-charge of the Disinvestment Cell, more like putting the fox to distribute the inmates of a chicken coop.

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Crisis in leadership – selecting persons without substance

Pakistan’s major inherent problem has been a continuing crisis in leadership over the decades. The quality of our leaders have tended to be generally poor (and where above the average, intermittent), with commensurate effect on the socio-economic fabric of the nation. Of particular concern has been the constant erosion of character at the highest level, a structural weakness that has permeated down the ladder till it is all-pervasive and is eating away at the foundations of the country. Unless we can rectify the situation expeditiously we will keep down sliding further into the corruption morass that is rapidly becoming an inherent part of our society.

We are always subjected to great rhetoric about honesty and integrity from either side of the political fence. The unfortunate problem is that morality in the higher leadership of both sides is open to question, some of them have the gall to tell blatant lies in covering up their excesses. Over the years the fundamental integrity of our leadership cadre and the national institutions has been so weakened that they do not inspire any general confidence among the intelligentsia or the masses. Democracy was to be the wonder medicine, the panacea that would cure all ills, the only difference with authoritarian rule has been that threat of media exposure has made corruption more sophisticated and the corrupt more circumspect, even that is a boon, thank God for small favours.

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Devastation!

The Alouette-3 chopper takes off from Dhaka Airport before the sun rises and heads south 180 degrees, flying low at 1000 feet above sea level, just above the rising morning mist and smoke. Eighteen minutes later we are abreast of Chandpur, leaving it six miles to the left, still flying south, the horizon changing from dark grey to a lighter shade, having just passed the confluence of Buriganga and Sitalakha rivers. We are now over the vast expanse of the Brahmaputra, it does not resemble a river anymore but a sea with large islands, yet we are still over mainland Bangladesh. The shrill whine of the Alouette-3 and the occasional crackle of radio traffic are the only companions of the otherwise silent cockpit, the faces of the occupants remain grim in the still-grey ambience, a long heart rending day lies ahead.

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