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
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
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
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
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
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.