A look over the shoulder | By Khalid Saleem


A look over the shoulder

THE devastating floods have wrought further havoc on an already ravaged economy. The economic soothsayers and the tax-happy planners are having a field day.

The proverbial man-in-the-street, meanwhile, is learning to scrape through the hard way. Whether he comes through unscathed or even survives the exercise is the moot point.

One has little to offer in the nature of consolation. It is only the lowly man-in-the-street one can easily identify oneself with.

Bereft as he is of the knowledge of higher economics – macro or otherwise – and shorn of practically all that man is supposed to live by, his principle concern is less to achieve the next notch in ‘per capita income’ stakes and more to keep body and soul together until the next salvo.

The question is: where does he go from here, if anywhere? With the rosy promises of the powers that be (“Pakistan could be among the top five countries in Asia in terms of economic growth”) to go by, he should by all accounts be on velvet.

And yet he somehow cannot help having this queasy feeling at the pit of the stomach that ‘all is not well in the Kingdom of Denmark’, and that his lot is sinking rather than rising.

Some time before the unveiling of the blessed budget, the prices of everyday commodities had already gone up through the ceiling.

He had hopes that they’d come down after the presentation of what was touted as the ‘poor man’s budget’?

They did not. As he decides on unkind cuts in his family’s daily intake, he wonders why?

Meanwhile, looking at the macro picture, poverty keeps on increasing, just as the rich keep on getting richer.

Add to this the fact that the economic czars of the country are working in a frenzy to dispose of the family silver and you have a picture that is getting murkier and murkier with every passing day.

All in all, in layman’s terms, why is the micro-economy of the country not moving hand in hand with its macro sibling?

The omens hardly look promising. The price of property booms to high heavens; corruption touches hitherto unachieved highs and shopkeepers merrily keep on raising the prices of necessities at will.

Sources of water supply are being polluted with impunity while the price of bottled water spirals upwards.

Parents are denied places for their children in public sector schools, while the Higher Education Commission pours millions into hair-brained schemes to produce a handful of PhDs out of the hat.

The cost of living is skyrocketing while the purchasing power of the common man constantly goes down.

What is the man-in-the-street to believe then: the hogwash of the statisticians/economists in the pay of the authorities, or the facts of life?

The priorities of the nation appear to have gone awry. Should our planners, such as they are, not be paying attention to curing the ills besetting the common man rather than nurturing illusory statistics?

The man-in-the-street understandably feels let down. He feels he is being shortchanged at every step.

The web of statistics and the increasingly rosy picture of the macro-economic development spun before him aside, what is he to make of the contradictory statements coming his way in the field of the security of the state, he has loved and cherished.

When the government of the time went for the nuclear option, it was he who was asked to make the supreme sacrifice.

It was he – and not the powers that be – that was exhorted to ‘eat grass’. And look where that landed him.

Then, it came to pass that he was told that the country’s salvation lay down the CBM path. He swallowed the glib talk of the spin-doctors and the Foreign Office spokespersons – hook, line and sinker.

Time and again, he was informed that there was more to the ‘composite dialogue’ than met the eye.

In his naiveté, he not only swallowed that line but also enthusiastically applauded every time the oracles informed him that there was a light at the end of the tunnel.

And now, he is left groping, wondering where the mirage of honourable peace with our neighbour that had been flashed before his tired eyes has vanished.

All that he can discern is tattered bits of tape that had been used to paper-over the ever-widening cracks in the otherwise rotten edifice of the peace process.

The country, meanwhile, is plunged up to its neck in an open-ended ‘war on terrorism’, in which it is constantly been exhorted to “do more”.

Do more for whom and for what? We are all what we have been brought up to be. Such is the way with all species.

One can hardly expect fish to thrive in desert sands. The problem is that we have to deal with not natural environment but contrived and man-made environmental conditions.

When peoples are brought up in bubbles, so to speak, where the very atmosphere is conveniently controlled to the optimum degree, subjective rather than objective considerations take hold.

Some babies in the sterilized environment are now being weaned on ‘designer water’. What on earth happened to natural clean drinking water?

Do we have to pamper the multinationals to an extent that provision of clean drinking water figures nowhere in our set of priorities?

One is neither an economist nor a planner. Nevertheless, one has come to believe that no people can either survive or prosper on a diet of statistics alone.

Mere percentages thrust down the throats of common folk just will not do. If figures have to be quoted then let them be in a tangible, easy to assimilate form.

When targeting the man-in-the-street, let our advisers and planners eschew the habit of talking of macro or micro-economic indicators or of strewing statistics in his path.

Let them, instead, measure the annual progress of the country in terms of

a) Number of additional persons provided with clean and safe drinking water.

b) Number of additional clinics and hospital facilities provided to deprived sections of the society.

c) Number of additional children provided admission in educational institutions.

d) Number of additional midwifes and paramedical staff provided in rural and far-flung areas.

e) Number of additional trees, not just planted but also nurtured.

f) The trickle-down effect of the economic policies of the government; and so on.

Once these small matters are sorted out, our planners may well be astonished to discover that such weighty issues as the economy’s growth-rate and the GDP will take care of themselves. All depends on where our priorities lie!

— The writer is a former Ambassador and former Assistant Secretary General of OIC.


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