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Archive for May, 2004

Balancing Humanity Against Numbers

Budget-making is an exercise that must remain the domain of human beings rather than that of computers. Given that statistical data of revenues collected and projected spending thereof have to be made coherent into an annual plan, budgets must facilitate the living in coping with the basic necessities of a comfortable and dignified existence rather than making the rich richer. Unfortunately we live by a philosophy of “reverse swing”, the common man’s common needs have no priority, the priority of gift-of-the-gab being to favourably impress whoever is the primary ruler of the country, then satisfy the World Bank, IMF, Asian Development Bank (ADB) and not the least the wealthy and influential elite, in that order. Statistics brush aside the needs of the masses, the buzz-word being “trickle-down” economics and a treasury bulging with foreign exchange reserves. As long as macro-economic indicators are favourable, micro-economics can play catch-up! The Indian masses recently gave BJP’s “India Shining” electoral plank a stinging rebuke, could this be an early warning signal for our rulers who depend too much for the country’s Budget-making on computers impersonating as humans?


Shooting Old Pensioners

Public perception about pensioners is fixed on retired generals and former Grade 21 CSP Officers even though they constitute less than 1% of the total, 80% of pensioners draw amounts less than Rs 1500 pm. Can anyone in his/her right mind consider this enough for survival in this day and age? There is a glaring disparity between the rates of pension being drawn by pensioners, the older the pensioner, the lower the rate. In April 1977, the maximum pay of a person in Grade 1 was Rs 140, his pension was Rs 98. It was increased to Rs 340 in May 1977, to Rs 640 in 1983, to 860 in 1987, to 1310 in 1991, to 1770 in 1994 and finally a 100% increase in 2001 to Rs 3520. The present day Grade 1 pensioner in his early sixties is drawing almost 2500 rupees as pension. The old, very old, pensioner who retired on a pension of 100 rupees in April 1977 and who is now in middle eighties, was given “Dearness Allowance” of about 10% periodically and his pension has risen to about Rs 600. The disparity between the pensions of old and new pensioners is painfully large, the difference between Rs 600 and Rs 2500 for the same post (and responsibility) is more than four-fold, it is scandalous to expect old people to live on this meagre amount well below the poverty line, it is a wonder they are still alive. Widows in this age group with even lesser chances of an alternate income draw half this amount!
Seven classes of pensioners draw different rates depending on the date of retirement despite serving in the same grade for the same length of service. The callousness involved, particularly in the lower grades, is self-evident. I am unabashedly quoting (albeit with his permission) most of this article from the letters of Mr. I A Sherwani, a retired civil servant who deserves kudos for almost single-handedly fighting the pensioners case. Imagine pensioners exposing themselves to the rigours of legal complications, involving endless visits to lawyers’ chambers and courts, particularly in the face of a Finance Ministry determined to be hostile and unfair, opposing even desperate pleas for fair play. Those on whom Fortune has smiled have shown amazing callousness towards their poor and starving colleagues, will this article nudge someone’s conscience?
All over the (civilized) world salaries and pensions are protected equally against the ravages of inflation and rising prices e.g. to quote the Civil Service Pension Scheme issued by the British Treasury States, “you will receive annual increases in time with the rise in the “cost of living” so that the benefit maintains its original buying power”. When pensioners were ignored in generous increase of 35% granted to military and civilian personnel, the then Advisor on Finance, V.A. Jafarey, himself now a pensioner, gave the lame excuse of shortage of funds! Pakistan has the dubious distinction of being possibly the only country in the world practicing callous apathy towards pensioners, not only is this unjust but it is an open violation of Islamic injunctions on equality, justice and benevolence. Consider the attitude prevalent in the Finance Ministry, a corollary of the colonial mindset. In the appeal submitted to the Appellate Bench they contended that increasing pensions was an act of “Grace”. The two sentences appearing in the operative part of their submission which became part of the judgment are self-explanatory, viz “(1) liberal interpretation of pension laws/rules rendering them totally ineffective is neither permissible nor possible and (2) on grounds of personal hardship, inconvenience, disliking and paucity of funds for decent living of a pensioner, the pension related laws, rules and regulations cannot be altered, modified or struck down” words etched in infamy.
Why is this situation allowed to exist at all? When the Mohtasib recommended in 1986 (he cannot give an order) immediate removal of this painful disparity, the Finance Ministry flatly refused and asked for a review. When the request for a review was rejected, they stood by their blatant callousness. Many prominent Parliamentarians were requested to help, no one responded. One Senator promised to take up the case with the President, and what was the response of the Honourable President? “I personally agree with the Mohtasib but ….”. No pensioner was asking for the President’s personal views, they were asking for his intervention not only as a Head of State but as a human being. After all, he too was once a retired Finance Secretary, and had not retired as a human being too. When the Federal Shariat Court declared the disparity to be repugnant to the injunctions of Islam, the Finance Ministry appealed to the Supreme Court and surprisingly won their case.
The Constitution Petition in the Supreme Court was opposed by the Finance Ministry vehemently, “in our view, a new ground or a new avenue can be explored on the basis of some legal principle and not merely on the ground that appears to be just and equitable…”, so much for the pre-eminence of justice and equity in an Islamic State. Justice Rustam S Sidhwa, observed “…the need to remove all disparity between past pensioners and new pensioners…..requires serious attention, for, under the Shariah, the State has an obligation to treat equally persons evenly placed by virtue of equal length of faithful and loyal service…..It is hoped that the Government shall address itself to these questions. Perhaps the Federal Shariat Court at some stage will look into these matters….” There was, of course, no possibility that the Finance Ministry would pay any heed to these observations of a Supreme Court Judge.
The Ministry gave two main reasons for their refusal viz (1) shortage of funds and (2) pensioners had no case in law because increase in pensions was an act of grace and the Ministry had full discretion to grant “Dearness Allowance” as and when they considered it necessary. The plea of shortage of funds is a red herring. Pensioners have never asked for additional benefits, they have only been requesting for a fair distribution of available resources. When it was pointed out to Mr. VA Jafarey (who was pleading shortage of funds in denying this increase to pensioners) that the increase of 35% to the serving could be reduced to 25% to accommodate pensioners, he shrugged his shoulders and kept silent. The other reason was the insistence of the Supreme Court “to remain within the ambit of the law”. If the law permitted the Finance Ministry to starve pensioners, the Court could do nothing about it. Firstly, there is no such law and if there is one, it is a bad law and should be struck down. The Federal Shariat Court’s pronouncement that the disparity was repugnant to the injunctions of Islam was swiftly set aside summarily and was not discussed, it finds no place in the judgment of their lordships. A major reason for this is the helplessness of the “pensioner community”, the majority of whom consists of lower rank pensioners, and like other poor people they can expect no justice from their rulers. The Law, as it is, is a form of economic terrorism, it violates the dignity of man and equality before the Law. But are there any listeners?
The budget is likely to be presented next month, can Shaukat Aziz be persuaded (now that he has US$ 12 billion in the kitty and Pakistan’s credit ratings have improved) to announce a package (forcing “trickle-down economics” to take effect before they die) for old, very old pensioners – i.e. a 100% increase of those who retired before April 1977, (or even June 1983) or for those who are more than eighty years of age? A flat rate of 5 or 10 or 15% will increase disparity and hurt rather than help. A rational, stable solution can follow. In the meantime, old pensioners must learn to die gracefully. Gang-rapes and Karo-Kari and honour killings sell, pensioners’ woes on the other hand are dull and drab, why should newspapers waste space to support them on their front pages? Being privileged to know of the President’s penchant for fair play and justice, one can only appeal to Pervez Musharraf sense for it, he must not allow his Finance Ministry to get away with murder! On the other hand if he finds himself powerless to intervene, let’s get on with shooting old pensioners, otherwise they will never fade away and will remain a pain in the neck of our “bright future”!


Gameplan Gone Awry

Every leader entering into conflict searches for ground and time of his own choosing, PM Atal Behari Vajpayee of India was no exception. Calling national elections much earlier than scheduled, the BJP satisfied itself that the conditions availing were extremely favourable for an outright victory. The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) factored three major premises, viz (1) the “feel good” about “India Shining” riding the crest of an economic upsurge, (2) validation of Vajpayee as a very popular national leader, loved and respected within India, acclaimed abroad and (3) an 180 degree turn in the BJP stance against Pakistan, India now ostensibly pursuing the path of peace, symbolically marked by the start of structured political negotiations.


Media in Pakistan

The fundamental ingredient making democracy possible is the flow of information – without which people cannot possibly govern themselves. The media (electronic, print, cyber and internet) ensures this flow of information. If restricted, censored or hindered in any way the people will remain ignorant, ignorant of events, ignorant of their rights, their duty to the State, their needs and the role that they can play for the betterment of the society they live in and the country as a whole. The media play an extremely important role in transmitting the claims of social, economic and political movements to the decision-makers and the public. There are several possible interaction-channels between the media and public opinion. On the one hand, we expect the media to frame and report movements to influence public opinion. On the other hand, media coverage may also reflect the existing public attitudes towards the movement, meaning that the media are themselves affected by public opinion.


Sacred Cows

The Army is reducing its numerical strength by about 50,000 men, to quote a recent announcement “this will cut its long tail while at the same time sharpen its teeth in a cost-effective way”. Sizable savings being envisaged by the reduction in troop’s strength will be directed to enhancing the combat efficiency of the Army. Military professionals opine that it will transform the army into a more potent institution, enhance its response capabilities and result in a fine balance between quality and quantity. The announcement claims that the fighting potential of the army will not be affected by this reduction in manpower. The restructuring plan envisages the Army to be ‘lean but lethal’ and hard-hitting, “it will improve the teeth-to-tail ratio”.