Economic growth? – Abdul Sattar


The claim of nearly four percent economic growth may have created a ripple of excitement among government circles but it does not seem to have brought any significant change in the life of a common citizen, who continues to suffer because of the onslaught of the pandemic and unwise policies of the ruling elite. Skyrocketing inflation, massive unemployment, extreme poverty and lack of basic amenities are still plaguing the lives of the people.

In a country of more than 207 million, around 89 million people do not have access to pure drinking water, the majority are still condemned to live in shanty towns and slums, more than 44 percent children are still facing the specter of stunted growth, almost 23 million children are still out of school, the contagion rendered over 18 million people jobless, and despite the much-vaunted health insurance 80 percent diseases are still water-borne, which this heavy investment failed to wipe out.

For the people, these are the bitter realities. They do not want to listen to the mantra of economic growth that has hardly alleviated their sufferings. They have no time to grasp the complicated financial indicators and statistics that have brought no tangible improvement in their lives. For them, real transformation lies in improving the living standard of the majority of Pakistanis. The people would be impressed by the government’s economic policies if they had mitigated hardships, provided decent housing, quality and free education, access to health facilities, uninterrupted power supply at a reasonable price and basic human right of pure drinking water.

For people living at the bottom layer of social stratification, these past two and half years have been terrible. There has been a phenomenal increase in the prices of essential commodities. A number of slums and low-income areas have been demolished in the name of development and mega projects. Thousands of people have been rendered jobless in the name of austerity, right sizing, downsizing and privatisation. Tens of thousands are still facing the spectre of termination because of the ruling elite’s love for the neo-liberal agenda. In addition to that, the government is also abolishing a number of facilities that were earlier extended to employees of public-sector entities.

After the 18th Amendment, the federal government does not need an army of departments but instead of following the spirit of the amendment and shutting down unnecessary divisions, it is expanding the federal bureaucracy, which will be a burden on the national exchequer. While the government and its ministers never tire of talking about low-paid government servants and their salaries, which they believe is a huge burden on the national kitty, they are reticent about the perks and privileges of big guns in the public sector that have been appointed at hefty salaries with lucrative perks and privileges. They never consider these generous packages a burden on the national exchequer.

Even during the pandemic, there was more interest in serving private capital than the people, coming up with the package of around Rs1200 billion with most of it going to Big Business. A meagre Rs200 billion was spent on the vast majority of the people who had been badly hit by the contagion. Despite receiving so many concessions from the government, industrialists and businessmen continued rendering tens of thousands workers unemployed, terminating them on the pretext of the coronavirus and the subsequent business losses. The government did not come up with any mechanism to prevent the termination of workers. No action was taken against industrial and commercial concerns that laid off the poor employees.

In order to appease private capital, Prime Minister Imran Khan announced a Rs700 billion package for Karachi, another Rs400 billion for different parts of Sindh and over Rs370 billion package for Gilgit-Baltistan. Together, this makes a whopping Rs1470 billion. Most of this amount has been allocated for large and mega projects. It may trigger economic activity and may help the pundits of finance markets come up with incomprehensible facts and figures and statistics but such projects have not mitigated the hardships of the masses in the past nor will they demonstrate any miracles in the future.

Will this amount bring the more than 22 million out-of-school children back to their places of learning? Will it put an end to the extreme poverty of more than 60 million Pakistanis? Will it extend any relief to the millions of Pakistanis who are suffering under the ever rising prices of power supply? Will these packages ensure the supply of pure drinking water to all Pakistanis? Will these government initiatives wipe out the easily preventable diseases that have been claiming the lives of thousands of Pakistanis every year?

The answers are in the negative because such projects on the one hand appease international monetary institutions, and on the other enrich a few individuals. PM Imran Khan is not the first to undertake such initiatives. In the past, the government of Nawaz Sharif also embarked upon so many infrastructure projects but despite pumping more than Rs1400 billion since 1988, the country is yet to show an impressive performance in this field. Almost every government since 1988 has come up with projects of roads, bridges and underpasses but even then we lose more than 48000 precious lives every year because of road accidents.

If the Prime Minister Imran Khan really wants to do something different, he needs to direct his energies towards lifting the vast majority of Pakistanis out of poverty. Their hardships cannot be mitigated by merely establishing shelter houses or doling out free meals but by creating more job opportunities for which the government will have to revitalize the public-sector entities. The PTI had said it would turn all the state-run concerns into profit earning entities. The prime minister needs to live up to his promises, turning these entities productive and efficient.

Instead of privatising public enterprises and industrial concerns, the government should invest in them, which will create more employment and revenues. The much-vaunted health insurance programme did not meet the expectations of the people. The government should invest into public sector hospitals and dispensaries, appointing more doctors, training more nurses and recruiting more paramedical workers. It should also set up hundreds of public universities and medical colleges, providing free education there, which will provide relief to millions of Pakistanis who spend an enormous amount of money on educating their children.

Thousands of housing societies have received money from people but failed to deliver housing units. A mere strict administrative action against the housing societies can help millions of Pakistanis get these housing units or their refunds which can be used to enhance economic activities. More than 80 million Pakistanis spend an enormous amount of money on health, education and pure drinking water. The government can lift millions of people out of poverty if it provides these three facilities on a priority basis.