Pakistan: Tales of despair, tales of hope
Every night before I sleep I find myself in a deep rabbit hole of motivational articles and videos, feeling the need to do something for myself, my family, and my beloved country. My eyes open the morning after and I feel sad, hopeless, and frustrated. One may think I’m struggling and maybe coping with my mental health and a part of that may be true. However, a big chunk of this cocktail of emotions felt upon waking up is the increasing awareness that the country I call home, the country I love, and the country I want to see grow – is gliding but gliding downwards only. Anxious thoughts and nerve-wracking emotions come from the ultimate realization that our country today stands on the foundations of uncertainty and on the brink of collapse. An economic crumble is in sight and I do not understand what to think or feel. My frustration stems from the fact that our corrupt people and thereby our faulty system has brought our country to its knees – every little issue ever has been politicized, passing the blame for every fiasco on to the next political party/opponent.
As I sit back and try to go through the history books as a young Pakistani in hopes of finding the answers to what went wrong, I comprehend a few things and a few things not. First and foremost, according to reports, it was predicted back in 2006 that from 2011 the Sui gas reserves of Pakistan would start depleting. At the time, it was discussed and reassured in cabinet meetings that by the time the reserves would start depleting, the Pakistan-Iran gas pipeline would be underway. Around the same time, newspapers published and channels aired politicians making claims that the country’s oil and gas drilling policies and incentives were so good that the whole world would jump on the opportunity. The possibility of the gas pipeline crumbling under US sanctions was brought up and discussed by many stakeholders but the reassurance of that not happening was high. Alas, the pipeline did get hit by US sanctions and most multinationals closed shop despite the many incentives, serving as a big blow to Pakistan and its economy.
As I earlier said I understand a few things about this country and a few things not, focusing on the latter the following example is a case in point. The Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) policy, after several years of struggle, finally saw the light of day. Two big businesses conglomerated to set up LNG terminals in just a few months. References were made to the country’s National Accountability Bureau (NAB) and an investigation was launched to uncover the sponsors of the two businesses involved in the conglomerate. Ultimately some went to jail and others were questioned. The policymakers were also shackled sealing the fate of any development in the aforementioned sector, adding to the many blows that followed.
In the years 2013 and 2018, the country faced similar mishaps. In 2013, the Islamic republic faced massive power cuts. However, the power generation capacity was greatly increased due to heavy funding mostly through CPEC projects. The capacity was vast but as with almost any other successive step, policy failures resulted in recessionary conditions leading to a dramatic decrease in electricity consumption forcing consumers to pay many hundred billions in capacity charges. As Haroon Akhtar Khan points out in his article, in 2018, NEPRA proposed putting the renewable energy policy on hold to the government. The reasoning behind doing so was that the country could produce cheaper electricity using coal and LNG reserves, both imported fuels. The fact that renewable energy does not deplete resources and the long term net-gain is much more than making use of other ways was brought up many times in the cabinet. It is on record that the cabinet was aware that renewable energy was the country’s “lifeline” and that the dependency on imported fuel would always keep Pakistan looped in on international fuel prices and exchange rates. These things did not budge the government much and the renewable energy policy was kept on hold. Today, much of the current-account crisis is rightfully attributed to imported fuel, perhaps acting as just one more blow to the long list.
In the first paragraph of this article, I mention feeling frustrated. The frustration stems from the fact that Pakistan has hit rock bottom and it all happened right under our nose but we kept looking the other way – making sure every issue could one way or the other be politicized to gain points for the next election. Keeping the above in mind, another case in point is as follows; when for many years Pakistan was an unfortunate victim of terrorism, investors, both local and foriegn, had shied away. At that point, CPEC emerged as a god-sent brilliant initiative through which Pakistan’s long-term friend and ally, China, planned to inject over 60 billion dollars into the country under the umbrella of several different developmental projects. To foster this, motorways and power plants had already been built. The plan was to follow this with special economic zones. Big Chinese powerhouses planned to shift their low-cost manufacturing facilities to Pakistan. It felt rosy and like the perfect deal until CPEC too was put on a “go-slow mode” due to political adventures and vested interests at the cost of Pakistan and its growth, an addition to Pakistan’s favorite list, the list I call ‘the list of blows’.
Pakistan is a dynamic country. A country with one of the fastest-growing populations in the world and a country with a young population full of potential. The country, among many other things, is gifted with all kinds of weather conditions and landscapes. A country rich in culture and heritage but a country not in sight of the world. Tourism is an industry that encapsulates major economic incentives and requires focus on a governmental level. Year after year, term after term, governments have come and gone, making big claims and even bigger promises to make Pakistan a haven for tourists – with little to no action and ultimately minuscule results. With the world’s largest mountain ranges all at the tip of Pakistan, the country is truly a gift from god. Pakistan needs to do something to conserve the blessings bestowed upon it. One of the many blessings is water coming from monsoon rains and melting glaciers. The country barely has any means of preserving this water – our crop yield, therefore, lags behind. Just across the border, with a similar climate, India gives a substantially higher crop yield. With changing weather conditions, yearly floods, and other economic problems, if we do not conserve our water and do not focus on amplifying our crop yield, a massive food shortage will soon become a reality. At this point, it is important to realize that exports are this country’s lifeline. When looking at countries like China and India and trying to narrow down their growth trajectory, it seems evident across the board that the two countries and the likes of them what are today referred to as ‘economic giants’ all focused on exports. The need for exporters to become competitive is dire on a national level as there is no denying the fact that real progress starts only and only when the national reserves of a country are large enough for it to not have the need to borrow from institutions like the IMF that make nations bend backward with conditions and requirements so strict that it is difficult to have a high GDP growth.
Pakistan has much to offer but lacks the right sort of environment to cultivate wealth creation. The domestic investor is scared of institutions like NAB, FIA, FBR, and others. These agencies have the ability to freeze accounts and go as far as snatching money under tax evasion and corruption scandals. Business owners under fear of unnecessary questioning and investigation, therefore, do not prefer keeping spare money in bank accounts but rather in foreign accounts or investing in real estate. Under this environment, it is no surprise that an increasing number of stakeholders and investors are shifting their residences out of Pakistan. The new generation pulls all kinds of strings to settle abroad causing a major brain drain to this very amazing country.
Growing up, young Pakistanis like myself have countless times heard how Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) is what paved the way for what is today the best airline in the world, Emirates. We have also heard almost fiction-sounding stories about how South Korea followed our model of the planning commission. We have heard it all and we seem to know recipe for success and we still find ourselves in an economic distraught in the year 2023. Why? Writing this at the cost of repeating myself but the people of this country have time and again taken the nation hostage to their own petty interests. When Haroon Akhtar in his article said “we are enemies of continuity” he was not wrong. From the milkman to the top officials of this country, everyone seems to have forgotten the premise on which this country was built.
With everything said and done and with everything that Pakistan is, it is also an undeniably resilient nation. All we need to do is, sit back and weigh our choices. Whether we want to continue going down the unfortunate collapse that is in sight or whether we want to actively make choices that are favorable towards the growth and thereby future of this country. A world of opportunities sits right in front of us – all we need is a change of spectacles.
The writer is contributing for national press, based in Islamabad.