Huge Government, Small Economy

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Iftekhar A Khan

When Miftah Ismail wants “Pakistan’s imports…to be equal to the dollar inflow from exports and remittances provided by citizens living abroad,” it’s nothing more than a utopian dream

Finance Minister Miftah Ismail in his interview with Bloomberg News said, “I want to see a Pakistan that lives within its means. That’s it.” What the finance minister advised speaks of his great optimism. It’s good to be an optimist but with caution. He desired far too much since it clashes with the collective interests of the upper crust of society.
Living beyond our means is what pushed us to near economic default, which we barely survived. Had we lived within our means, we wouldn’t have faced such a precarious situation. The core of the problem is that we are a poor nation whose ruling elite pursue a princely lifestyle. Besides we have an over-bloated government that our minuscule economy cannot support, hence we have to beg or borrow to feed the government.
To quote from Miftah Ismail’s interview, “Less than a week ago the International Monetary Fund gave Pakistan a $1.16 billion lifeline to avoid an imminent default. Pakistan also secured pledges for a total of $9 billion in investments and loans from Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. Ismail said he expects a $1 billion investment in listed state-owned companies to materialize in about a month.” It raises some pertinent questions. With such a poor state of the economy, can’t the VVIPs do without bulletproof luxury vehicles? Sheikh Rashid, a minister in the former PTI government, rode in a bulletproof vehicle pretending to face a threat to his life. Why partake in politics if the politicians would feel their lives threatened?
The recent report that Imran Niazi’s security protocol cost this poor nation Rs20 million a month shocked everyone. Compared with the lifestyle of the ‘royals’, the burden of debt every child and grownup has to bear amounts to more than Rs2,35,000, as declared by former chairman of the FBR, Shabbar Zaidi at the end of last year. It includes the miserable populace we witness in areas devastated by floods – carrying their bags of clothing on their heads wading through water to safety. What an unjust word, is the thought that crosses your mind on seeing the disparity between the super-rich and the downtrodden deprived by the system.
When Miftah Ismail wants “Pakistan’s imports…to be equal to the dollar inflow from exports and remittances provided by citizens living abroad,” it’s nothing more than a utopian dream. And that the restriction on the import of luxury items will continue until the economy recovers have no reality in it. In a country where people from the poorest rung of society are forced to take their lives for want of food, luxury stores still display imported bags of dog and cat food for the pets of the rich.
However, what haunts us is that we have too big a government and too small an economy to feed it. Observe any government department, and one finds layers upon layers of bureaucrats drawing huge salaries and enjoying other privileges such as housing and luxury cars. In many residential areas in Lahore, SUVs, Toyotas and Hondas bearing green registration plates are seen parked outside the homes of judges and bureaucrats, rotting in the summer heat.
The taxpayers must demand that the government establish a watchdog department to assess how many government departments and divisions could be disbanded without affecting the official work. Dr Kaiser Bengali, the famous economist, would be the best choice to head such a department. So frequently we hear about new departments and the so-called authorities being established, increasing the financial burden on the public exchequer. Is there any sense in employing people in unproductive jobs? Do companies in the private sector show such generosity to employ three working hands where one is needed? Why the same principle can’t be applied to government departments?
To control government expenses and check corruption, the IMF laid down a condition that the details of assets of the politicians, civil servants and their spouses be made public. In the Letter of Intent signed by Pakistan and returned to the IMF, the government agreed to establish an electronic declaration system to make public the assets held by the politicians and bureaucrats within and outside the country. But the government could exempt members of the judiciary and armed forces from such compulsion. In all fairness, both organisations, untainted by financial malfeasance as these are, should volunteer themselves and their families to be included in the list of declaration of assets. It will greatly enhance their standing in the public eye.