Still groping for direction


Zaheer Bhatti

WHEN prices of medicines and consumables register phenomenal increase in the event of a health calamity instead of voluntarily decreasing if not freezing them it only demonstrates how callous Pakistanis have become to adversity, lest it strikes them personally by which time few realize that it may be too late to recognize. Pharmacists in the current Corona crisis are en-cashing the human tragedy and making hefty profits as if they were themselves never to die. As a classic example of familiar Government machinations, the PTI also no different from the others, staged a fake rescue act by first allowing the retailer to sell sugar at Rs 90/- per kg, then constituting an Inquiry Commission to determine causes of the price hike and while letting the real culprits off the hook by setting off a probe dating back to eighties (aimed at never to end), intervened through the judiciary and struck a ‘still to materialize’ deal with the suppliers Association to provide sugar in the market at Rs 63/- per kg to be sold by the retailer for Rs 70/- apparently bringing the price down by Rs 20/- but actually registering a raise of Rs 17/- over Rs 53/- per kg it was available in the market before the manipulated crisis.
And then hedging behind Corona the Government marvels at the success of PM’s initiative appealing for debt relief by donors to recipient developing nations; only to further mortgage their economies to the debt trap by merely deferring payment and not decreasing or writing part of them off. Loans payable this year will be added on to the next, making it even more difficult to pay back with no efforts at earnings by raising productivity; foreign remittances the only other source already depleting with layoffs due to Corona-caused inactivity abroad. The PTI Government apparently presenting a tax-free budget ignores the very class it clamours to care for, fearing it could perish due to lockdown but in fact imposing one by ignoring any relief for the daily wager, which squarely indicates that it is an IMF-dictated budget which is averse to any welfare measures. The budget makes a mockery of its CPEC priority for which it has earmarked just 210 million rupees which is peanuts for augmenting the much touted Industrial Zones to usher in development activity across the country about which its clueless Minister is seen bragging about commencing work on various aspects of the Western route; whatever it means!
The Government has not prioritized initiating small dams for cheaper energy nor moved to scrap or renegotiate the grossly inflated IPP contracts which are principally responsible for the economic mess in which the country has landed. And the notorious NAB which opens up inquiries against just anybody on the patent subjective pretext of ‘Assets and earnings beyond means’, does nothing against these IPPs who have pocketed billions at the cost of the common man, simply because they belong to the mafias which it dare not touch.
It is by now a foregone conclusion that unless developing countries significantly raise their productivity and quality-competitive earnings from the global market, there is no way they can pay back loans by borrowing more; which happens to be the case with Pakistan. Hard decisions are the answer to this malady, but only the right ones. Denying pay and pension raise to the tens of millions is certainly not one of those required hard decisions as this class is already under economic stress due to various kinds of man-made crises leave alone the silent Corona. With doctors in Government risking their lives despite lack of protective gears and miserable pay scales, one learns that making Corona disruption an excuse, the elite convent private educational institutions which normally make tons of money with impunity, have decided to slash the already meagre salary packets of their teachers some of whom hold post-graduate distinctions; a sad commentary over the importance given to two most neglected disciplines in Pakistan, which hold top priority in the developed world.
Hard decisions are required in the context of some key institutions and Government-run Industries which have been incurring heavy losses to the exchequer just because of overstaffing. Pakistan International Airlines once the top Airline of the world, Pakistan Steel Mills the only key defence production supply chain unit of the country, and Pakistan Railways are a few key establishments which cannot be bartered away to the private sector in view of their sensitive nature. The answer is not to privatize them but to make them functional which is only possible by offering a golden-handshake to a total of perhaps a hundred thousand politically appointed dead wood in all these institutions put together. With selfless managers such as Gen (R) Abdul Qayyum in the past turning PSM into a profit-making unit, the nation may well see overnight transformation in the fortunes of these three key institutions.
The first thing a private tender of a sick Government unit would do is to make it cost effective by instantly shedding off its surplus manpower, although in any case, in order to run them and expand subsequently they would require more manpower. So if the Government wishes to create jobs to beat unemployment and increase efficiency, it must stop stuffing Government departments with political appointees, and instead encourage setting up agro-based Industries with less reliance on imported raw material and saving precious foreign exchange. The rot had set into the Pakistan body whole with privatization of industries by the otherwise shrewd politician Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto; rendering most of the units sick because soon after take-over they were stuffed with politically recruited manpower. But despite penalizing of subsequent leaderships by the courts for illegal recruitments no lessons have been learnt as the present Government is not just dragging its feet on retrenchments but has ordered recruitments of further 1,25,000; the main reason for Government dysfunction.
—The writer is a media professional, member of Pioneering team of PTV and a veteran ex Director Programmes.

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