IT has been almost a quarter of a century, now, that the language of our economic policy has been dominated by concerns related to growth. Over these years, we have worried ourselves sick over questions like how to attract foreign investment, how to bridge the fiscal deficit so the state does not become the dominant consumer of the country’s investible resources, what foreign exchange regime would best serve the objective of reserve asset accumulation, how to shift the taxation base away from trade towards consumption, and so on. As the language came to revolve around these questions, the poor and the marginalised increasingly dropped off the policy radar, becoming little more than an afterthought — a nuisance, rag-tag rabble with nothing but bellies to fill. Our infrastructure has seen paradigm-changing investments, like cellular communications and highways, but our public schools have fallen into desolation and disrepair. Flashy brand-name fast food establishments have proliferated, while the majority of our country’s children have been pushed into the clutches of hunger and chronic malnutrition. The government today talks about bullet trains and highways, while our railway infrastructure grinds to a halt and in our largest city, people still commute to work squatting atop buses that resemble rusted iron cages on wheels.
All this must change. In a seminar held in Karachi on Wednesday on the social justice impact of the budget, speakers highlighted the enormous cost of neglect that the poor have had to bear over these decades as the policy conversation has whistled right past their needs. Almost 50pc of the population of 180 million are malnourished, one speaker told the audience. This is a horrifying statistic, especially in a time when the government likes to brag about its accomplishments by invoking currency stability or the rising stock levels of the stock market. “It’s the state’s responsibility to take care of its citizens,” another highlighted. “It should take care of its mothers and children and provide them with a nutritional level that can help them fight for a better life.” It is impossible not to agree. It is imperative that our community of economists take the lead, and help the country find its way back to the older principles that fell off the truck when we began talking about liberalisation. The journey back begins with recovering the language which can put the needs of the poor in the driving seat of policy-making.
Published in Dawn, June 27th, 2014