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
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
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
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
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.