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365 DAYS

Time to deliver

By SYED M. ASLAM
Oct 13 - 19, 2003

October 10 marks the first year of the general elections, hailed as the ultimate step towards the restoration of democracy after the Nawaz Sharif government was toppled in a bloodless coup three years previously.

With the election of Mir Zafaraullah Khan Jamali as the leader of the house by the minimum possible majority of just one vote 172 against the minimum 171 required six weeks later the country was back on the road of democracy at least theoretically. Their hopes were further upped when the first cabinet meeting was held in the third week of December particularly because it expressed concerns about the rising cost of the utilities and decided to give a relief of 12 paisas per unit to the power consumers.

That token relief on the part of the new rulers has long been taken back by the public sector utilities company which have increased the tariffs many time since. Not only the prices of power have gone up sharply but the people are routinely receiving highly exaggerated bills. A visit to any one of the Karachi Electric Supply Corporation's billing office is enough to prove that people are increasingly burdened by high billing running from pillar to post for a recourse which is just not there. In addition, the Prime Minister has expressed his inability to do anything to provide a relief to power consumers by stating that it would not be possible to reduce the power prices before the year 2007. He, however, has given no indication if the power tariffs would not be increased during the same period.

For the first time ever a minimum educational qualification was made a prerequisite for the elected representatives be it the National Assembly, Senate or the four provincial assemblies. The prerequisite of a bachelor's, or an equivalent degree from a seminary, forced many seasoned politicians out of the general elections altogether while it made many others to take examinations in a bid to qualify. Those who were forced out of the race because they did not have the precious degree fielded their graduate off springs, both sons and daughters, as well as wives in the elections, many of whom managed to secure seats in the parliament. Some of those who did manage to get graduated on time also contested the polls and some of them also won.

However, the first graduate assemblies has not only costing the exchequers much more dearly than their previous counterparts, due mainly to hefty increase in salaries and perks of the legislators, but have miserably failed to do their real job the legislation. The meetings of the assemblies are few and if trends are any indication they would fall much short of the minimum quorum required during the year. Even when in session, which is marked by long adjournments, it usually ends in a noisy protests and walkouts by an opposition challenging the legality of the Legal Framework Order (LFO), amendments made in the constitution by President General Pervez Musharraf. At other times, if the legislators in the National Assembly belonging to the opposition choose to stay in the hall, the session keeps restricted to question and answer. In short, the first graduate assembly of the country has miserably failed to deliver despite costing heavily to the exchequers.

No issues of importance have been discussed in the National Assembly and the Senate in a country where there are problems all over. The failure of the parliamentarians to legislate is depriving the people their voice their concerns about issues that need to be discussed. There is no lack of issues that people want to have discussed in the assemblies.

The inability of the parliamentarians to sit together has deprived the people to voice their problems for finding a succor. For instance, nothing has been done to discuss the top problem facing the country today the sharp rise in unemployment and poverty during the last few years.

A report published by the Centre for Research on Poverty Reduction and Income Distribution last year portrayed a dismal picture of socio-economic conditions in the country. The report said that 50 per cent or 72 million people in the country were living below the poverty line (globally accepted as less than one dollar a day per person). It also painted a grave picture about the neglect to our younger generation saying that at least 6 million children between the age of 5-9 were out of school and around 55 per cent of the persons of 10 or above age were illiterate.

The report also cited inequitable income distribution and tax burden tilting towards the poor as a major cause of growing poverty in the country. It showed that the top 20 per cent of the rich were sharing 50 per cent of the income among while 20 per cent of those at the bottom rung of the economic ladder were getting a miserly 6 per cent of the share.

The poor segment of the population was further marginalised due to a tax system which tilted heavily against them. According to the report, the tax burden had registered an increase of 4 per cent for the lowest income group while it was magnanimously reduced by 21 per cent for the high income group.

Just how heavily the educated legislators are costing the citizens of this poverty-stricken country is obvious from the example of the increase in salaries and perks of the legislators in the most populated province of the country Punjab. A week before the members of the Punjab assembly took the oath, the governor of the province announced a hefty increase in their salaries from Rs 4,500 to Rs 10,000 per month. The salaries of advisors and parliamentary secretaries were also fixed at Rs 30,000 and 20,000 respectively while the salary of Chief Minister of the province was increased from 21,000 to 39,000 and that of the Speaker was increased from 20,250 to 37,000. The salaries of the ministers, deputy speaker and opposition leader were also increased from 18,000 to 35,000. The Speaker was also allowed to use 2 official maintained cars as well as a monthly house rent of 25,000, in case an official residence would not be available. The 358 legislators in Punjab, thus, are costing the exchequers almost Rs 43 million a year in salary alone and their collective perks and incentives add up many times that amount.

The same has been the case with the members of the National Assembly, the Senate and other provincial assemblies except the NWFP where the ruling party decided to voluntary cut the salaries of the members of the cabinet to express solidarity with the common man. The question is: Is the cost of living is hurting only the handful of legislators while the masses who elected them remain not only deprived of such fabulous salary increases and perks but also of a voice in the legislatures?

Let the facts speak for themselves: Only 23 per cent of the Pakistani population have access to sanitation which is lower than in other countries with similar income pattern as highlighted in the annual report of the World Bank released last month. The country reels from a low per capita income of $ 420 which masks grave economic inequalities, income distribution and tax burden tilted heavily in favour of the rich. The 'trickle down' policy remain a salient, albeit a silent feature of the government, the affect of which can hardly be expected to reach the people at the bottom rung of the society. The industries and the public sector utilities companies keep on enjoying the protected and monopoly at the financial suffering of masses. The per capita savings ratio is one of the lowest in the region and the middle-class has been constantly marginalised to the point of extinction.

According to the senior industrial relations experts of the ILO, A. Sivananthiran, 12 million persons were unemployed and almost one-third of the population living below poverty line at a seminar held in Lahore this week. The country needs to create at least half a million jobs a year to control the growing unemployment and poverty, he had added. Alas, the elected representatives seem to have an agenda of their own to protect their own vested interests instead of discussing such important issues at the forum which should be busy making laws to help lessen the economic burden for the masses trying hard to survive.

The patience of the masses is fast running out as the population of the country keeps on increasing. There are 14.1 million more mouths to feed today then there were in March 1998 when the population and household census was done. According to a written statement submitted in the National Assembly, which as stated earlier has become more of a question-answer forum instead of the legislative organ that it should have been, on the 6th of this month Pakistan's population touched the 146.5 million mark in January this year compared to 132.4 million five-and-half-years ago. The increasing population means mounting problems in a developing country like Pakistan and the failure of the legislators to deliver is taking a heavy toll on the economy of the country. Off course, we are talking about the foreign exchange reserves which have reached dignified levels or increased exports as both of them are of symbolic value unable to better the lives of the common man.

The elected legislators have not only failed to discuss issues of vital national importance but also the developing scenario in the region to best exploit whatever benefits they may offer to the country and people. They have failed to cash on the role that Pakistan played as the borderline state against the US-led war against terrorism to deeper penetration in Afghan market next door. True that the trade with the neighbouring country has benefited many industries but the fact remains that whatever initiative has been taken is taken mostly by the private sector with little help from the government.

The ongoing pandemonium at the Senate and the National Assembly has created a sense of political instability, not only within the country but also outside to take a toll on the economy. For instance, Chihwai Liew, a sovereign ratings specialist at the international rating agency Standard & Poor's Corporation, recently said that the improvement in Pakistan's credit ratings is linked to the political stability. Expressing his concern about the political situation he added that it is a constraining factor for the country's credit rating. The comments are more the important because they came ahead of the visit by the agency next month to monitor economic, political and fiscal developments for a credit ratings review.

It has also deprived the country re-entry into the Common Wealth once again recently due to its reservations about the conflict between the government and opposition on the issue of LFO. The denial hints at the concerns at the credibility of the restoration of real democracy in the country internationally despite general reservations about the organisation here in Pakistan.

The failure of over 1,150 legislators elected by the masses to the National Assembly, Senate and the four provincial assemblies has deprived people of their democratic voices. They have also failed to discuss and formulate policies that address the core issues such as unemployment, poverty, corruption, sharp increase in the cost of living, literacy, unequal distribution of income, inequitable taxation, lack of public medical care and so on so forth. The indifference to discuss such issues of national importance and failure to discuss them in the legislature deprives the people of their right to be a part of the democratic process to help improve their condition.

The failure of the legislative assemblies to make laws in Pakistan has created a vaccum whereby the policies have no legislative backing and are on adhoc basis. This adhocism in turn is taking a heavy toll on all activities be it human, economic, trade or otherwise. It has also resulted in creating problems for instance not creating concensus about such important national issues as construction of Kalabagh Dam, sending the army to Iraq, etc., etc.

The assemblies have become more a place of discontent then unity that they were supposed to be. They should have been places where the legislators agree to disagree to discuss an issue in a cordial manner. They have seemed to have divided instead of uniting the people where thumping of the desks, boycott, jeering, name calling and fist fights have become a routine. They have failed to discuss any issue of importance and make laws for the benefit of the people and the country. In fact, they have even failed to become at least a debate club.

The graduate assemblies and the legislators are enjoying the perks of the offices which they have failed to earn. The masses who have elected them keep on maintaining the legislators who have done nothing to better their lot be it measures pertaining to reduce the rising cost of living, spiraling poverty, lack of access to medical care, education or employment.

For its part, the government has little to show for its 11 months in power. Except for foreign exchange reserves (which soared due primary to increase in flow of remittances through legal channels and deferment of foreign loans allowing the country to breathe a little more easier), a 12 paisas reduction in power tariffs (which was recovered shortly afterwards) and developments projects announced every now and then, the government has little to show for its 11 months in office.

Legislation provides sanctity to policies be it related to economic, human, industrial, trade, foreign relations. It gives direction to both the internal and external policies of the government. There are no dearth of issues with over 72 million people living in abject poverty, high unemployment rates, rising prices, inequitable taxation and distribution of income, lack of basic health services, high illiteracy rate, child labour and various other issues of discontent between the provinces.

It is time for the elected representatives to understand that the people who elected them in aspirations of a better tomorrow are fed up with the incapacity to deliver. It is also time for them to discuss the real problems faced by the people to help them improve their lot. It is time to make laws that gives the masses a fair share in the economic and financial activities of the country. It is time to devise policies which results in job opportunities within the country and markets outside. It is time to devise policies to provide education and healthcare to all instead of gloating about the record foreign exchange reserves which has only symbolic significance.

It is time to really work towards the eradication of poverty, not by giving small useless handouts but by providing gainful employment to the people. The elected representatives should strive to find ways to increase the volume and value of exports by finding new markets beyond the handful of traditional ones.

Much water has flown under the bridge and much ice has melted. It is time for the elected representatives to understand that people are sick and tired of their ways and expect them to make good their election promises by improving their lot.