120 DAYS

Pakistan faces a number of challenges simultaneously at present

Mar 17 - 23, 2003 

If challenges, as they say, are opportunities than the Jamali government has had many of them since coming to power four months ago. It started when Mir Zafarullah Jamali was elected the Leader of the House with a wafer-thin majority of 172 vote in the parliament, just one more than the minimum 171 required, and continues till today in the face of a charged opposition the focus of which is the Legal Framework Order (LFO) amendments made in the 1973 Constitution by the Musharraf government.

The PML (Q), the party to which Prime Minister Mir Zafarullah Jamali belongs, had emerged as the single biggest party in the October 2002 elections but still required the support from a number of other parties to form the government. The coalition government is facing an opposition which is not only strong but also very vocal, and physical, as evident from its successful blocking of the proceedings both in the parliament and the Senate during the oath taking ceremony of the newly-elected Senators recently.

The short period of the Jamali government is also sprinkled with a welcomed, but what many critics say token poverty alleviation and relief packages, which would hardly improve the quality of lives of the people at the lowest rung of the economic ladder. It included a 12 paisa relief in the electricity charges and a Rs 2,500 a year to 2.5 million families across the country.

The newly-elected government held its first cabinet meeting in the federal capital in mid-December and announced a reduction of 12 paisas per unit in the price of electricity. The measure necessitated by what Prime Minister Jamali called 'deep concern over the rising cost of utilities adding to the miseries of common man' had little impact on the small residential user and even less for commercial consumer. However, the token gesture was looked like a good beginning by the prime minister to honour his words to mitigate the suffering of the poor particularly as he said that 'the reduction in electricity charges was just a beginning.'

Soothing words indeed in a country where almost half of the 140 million people are living below the poverty line. While it took the newly elected government a month to came up with the 12 paisa relief package, the legislators-elect of the Punjab Assembly got a hefty increase in the salary and perks a good one week before they were to take oath. Meanwhile the people are still waiting for another relief package as promised by the Prime Minister.

However, the federal cabinet approved a welfare scheme for the poor a month later on January 18. Under the plan patronizingly called the 'Prime Minister's Falahi (Welfare) programme' the government will disburse Rs 2,500 a year to 2.5 million families in the country to mitigate poverty. The plan reeks of political expediency instead of human compassion that it deserved and was so ill-conceived that the figures provided by the Federal Information Minister and Advisor on Finance just did not match. This is evident from the fact that the government announced to allocate Rs 5 billion for the said program while Rs 2,500 a year disbursed to 2.5 million families translates into Rs 6.25 billion.

In addition, the plan was also extremely limited in scope as Rs 2,500 a year means just a little over Rs 200 a month, an amount hardly enough to buy 20 kilogram of wheat flour and not even 4 kilogram of the cheapest cooking oil available anywhere across the country. On the other hand the government of Punjab announced to increase the salaries and perks of the provincial legislators on November 18, a good one week they were to take the oath of the office. In addition, it also announced to buy 60 brand new luxury cars for the ministers at a cool Rs 72 million a little later.

And just recently the federal government has said that it is considering a proposal to enhance the pay and allowances of the parliamentarians. The Minister for Parliamentary Affairs Raja Hiraj informed the National Assembly on the 10th of this month that the proposal was under active consideration of the Ministry of Finance.

Is the poverty alleviation plan mentioned above can help arrest the poverty in a country where over 40 million of the population is forced to live under absolute poverty? Poverty is the single biggest problem facing the country today and non-serious plans to alleviate it would only make the situation even more worse. Just how bad is the situation is obvious from findings of reports highlighted below.

According to a World Bank report on Pakistan released in Islamabad in mid-November last year warned the economic managers that their failure to make serious efforts to reduce the social gap would jeopardize the economic growth and to sustain the debt liability. According to the comprehensive report on 'Pakistan Poverty Assessment' of the Bank, Pakistan's social indicators were not only worst placed in the South Asia region but also compared poorly with other countries at a similar stage of development. The report said that compared to other countries in the similar income bracket 23 less Pakistanis have access to sanitation, lower school enrollment, greater adult literacy, higher child mortality and wider gender gap in literacy.

According to the Bank's Country Director for Pakistan, John W. Wall, "reducing poverty and improving social indicators will require continued efforts and good governance. Despite fiscal constraints, there is plenty of room to enhance the effectiveness of service delivery and social spending, particularly in education and health." The report also said that Pakistan was the third biggest second only to Egypt and India recipient of official assistance in the world during 1960 and 1999 and had received $ 58 billion during this period.

The Bank put poverty at 32.6 per cent in Pakistan adding that almost one-third of the population was living below the poverty level in the country and blamed political patronage as one of its major cause. "Elected officials had more incentives to provide targeted benefits to specific individuals or groups rather than to a wider and more anonymous set of beneficiaries." The report also blamed the legislators and politicians not to honour their electoral promises to uplift the economic conditions of the people.

Poverty, unarguably, is the single most pressing issue facing the government today. Defence and foreign debt payments claim the major part of the budget leaving little monies for public and social sector. This trend during the last decade is a major deterrent to human development without which poverty can not be eliminated. In addition, inflation has also acted as another deterrent to alleviate the rising level of poverty by curtailing the purchasing power, which particularly affects the low and middle income segments of the society.

That highlights the need for increased spending on public and social sectors, particularly education and health. Over the years the successive governments have find it fit to increase the prices of all utilities focusing on petroleum as the major source of revenue. The prices of gas, electricity, telephone and essentials such as cooking oil and other kitchen items have been on a rise constantly. All of it has pushed the cost of living sharply to unaffordable limits. While the rising international prices are blamed for the incessant price increases of almost all goods and products the benefits of a weakening dollar which has shed its value enormously in last 18 months have never been passed to the people.

Speakers at a seminar held in Lahore two weeks ago termed the performance of the 100 days of the new government far from satisfactory. The seminar organized by the Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency accused the national and provincial assemblies to avoid discussing such relevant and vital issues like poverty, unemployment, inflation and law and order. It also blamed them for not doing the work they were supposed to do taking up the necessary legislative work.

It also said the National Assembly has failed to discuss issues of great national interests such as the Legal Framework Order, role of judiciary, independence of parliament, distribution of funds between the provinces.

In his first televised address to the nation on the 11th of this month the Prime Minister Mir Zafarullah Jamali announced to initiate various welfare schemes for the people and also number of more promises. He announced establishment of 'model towns' across the country to provide cheap housing facility to the people. He also assured reduction in the number of taxes for the business community. As usual providing relief to the people through tax incentives to the businessman has been a favourite with all the previous governments.

Obviously, the prime minister understands the plight of the masses. "Pakistan faces a number of challenges simultaneously at present. On the one hand, the poor is getting poorer while on the other our society is plagued by such problems as illiteracy, unemployment, disease, injustice, dependency on foreign loans, corruption, and law and order situation."

The prime minister had rightly diagnosed the ills but his speech fell short of offering any remedies to correct the situation. That bring us back to the real job the newly-elected assemblies have failed to do the legislation since the restoration of democracy four months ago. Pakistanis may be weak financially but they have no dearth of intelligence and street-smart to look beyond promises of a bright future which has failed to dawn despite assurances by the successive rulers.

A bloated foreign exchange reserve, increased remittances from expatriates, official feel-good statistics, and promises alone can hardly convince the masses. They want to see the materialization of the promises this time around by the present government. They are too mature to be satisfied by sympathy and promises alone as they have heard the similar words by the successive rulers in distant and not-so-distant a past. They want to see something concrete to back the words with action this time around.

Talk to any layman and you will be surprised his in-depth diagnosis of the economic woes of the country. Underestimating the intelligence of the people to blindly believe the spoken words without being backed by any concrete action would further erode an already badly tarnished credibility of the politicians. As is the turnout at successive elections, and the nation has witnessed many of them during the last decade, has been on a constant decline to a point where the majority of electorates now prefer not to cast their votes. That speaks a volume of mistrust of people and the alienation of them from the electoral process undermines the very foundations of what passes for democracy in the country.

Having said that let's get back to the speech of the prime minister who said that illiteracy breeds poverty, and rightly so. Four out of every five women in the country is illiterate, 35 per cent of the children in the country has never seen a school and less than two girls between the ages of 11 and 14 attend school compared to 4 boys in the same age group. How can a society progress in which a mother a woman is illiterate."

The relevant question is what can be done to improve the literacy rate in a country reeling from rampant illiteracy. Of course, the country now has its first Graduate assemblies and Senate and yet the same has avoided to discuss real issues for the betterment of the people. During the first four months, the legislators have been busy in strengthening their positions failing to discuss any important issue, not to mention making any laws.

Personal promises, and assurances, even if they are made by the prime minister carry little weight if not backed by an act of parliament. The stamp of parliamentary approval is a must to bring any and all positive challenges to restore the credibility of the politicians and the government in the eyes of the people.

It is time for the elected representatives to amicably sort out their differences to start the real work they were elected for the legislation. The prime minister Jamali has repeatedly talked about the supremacy of the parliament and it is time the legislators be allowed to debate the merits or otherwise of an issue in line with the aspirations of the people. Failure to do this would mean further loss of credibility for the politicians which would deliver devastating blow to any and all attempts to restore confidence in the electoral process in the times to come.

Let's talk about two most important issues, illiteracy and poverty. The massive prevalence of illiteracy and poverty are the two important issues facing the nation today. According to Prime Minister Jamali illiteracy begets poverty which in turn begets unemployment which results in isolation and mental dis-satisfaction. It is this isolation and mental dis-satisfaction, he added, which ultimately results in lawlessness and terrorism. The question is how this vicious cycle of destructive chain reaction be stopped.

It is imperative for the elected representatives to honour the aspirations of a people the majority of which is illiterate, unemployed, poor. It is time that the legislators to make people-friendly policies to solve the economic, social and financial problems of the people on the top priority basis. Shelving the problems or sweeping them under the rug would make an already bad situation worse.

The legislators in the collective capacity, both the ruling and the opposition, should try to come up with legislative solutions to remove the burdens by providing real relief to the people now and not try to win their goodwill by making promises which time and again have failed to materialized in the past.

Identifying the problems should be seen as only the beginning and never as an end in itself. We have to realize that we live in an unjust society divided deeply by grave social, political and economic inequalities the most ugly feature of which is the affluence of a few and deprivation of many. Successive governments had done nothing to change this faulty line of thinking but the present government should correct a long overdue wrong. It is time to include the masses in real democratic process of decision making and to take necessary legislative measures to check unfair distribution of wealth, widening income disparity, inequitable burden taxes which tilt heavily in favour of the rich.

It is time to find ways to abolish the rampant political and economic segregation stagnating our political, economic and social growth and undermining over sovereignty. It has also taking a heavy toll on our collective morale by creating a fragmented society into classes, and classes within classes. The most ugly reminder of this division is that over one-third of the 140 million population of this country is living below the absolute poverty line of less than dollar a day.

It is also imperative that all attempts to institutionalized the democracy be made. There are many who attribute our lack of progress on the absence of democratic institutions throughout our short but checkered history.

Let's not indulge in statistics as they hide more than what they reveal. Let's not allow ourselves to be naive to measure the growth, progress and prosperity on papers which fail to reflect the hard realities on the ground. Let us ask why the foreign exchange reserves pushing $ 10 million have not made any difference to improve the lives of people? Let us also stress that without meaningful increase in the budget outlay for education, health and other social development works we would not be able to alleviate poverty no matter how many welfare schemes and relief packages are announced.