IN the tumultuous March of 1970, the Planning Commission convened an advisory panel of economists from East and West Pakistan to provide input to the outline of the Fourth Five-Year Plan. The panel consisted of 12 economists, six from each wing, and held six meetings in three different cities.
The panel could not come to an agreement regarding important questions of growing regional disparities in Pakistan, and as a result split into two different groups. The economists from East Pakistan went off in a group led by Mazharul Haq who was the chairman of the panel, while their West Pakistani colleagues worked separately to produce their own report.
As a result, two separate reports were submitted to the government from the same panel. East and West never had a meeting of minds on the crucial questions of their time, and their tortured attempts to communicate with each other makes for grievous reading, and deserves to be quoted at length.
“The future of the nation, indeed its very survival, hinges on whether the benefits and burdens of economic development can be shared equitably by the people of all the regions,” wrote the East Pakistani economists in the opening pages of their report.
The authors regretted that the panel was forced to split into two, saying “[o]ur differences were fundamental, touching, we felt, the very sense of the crisis the nation is passing through”.
Regional disparities lay at the heart of the crisis and could be seen in ever-widening disparities in per capita incomes, in the East’s share in government expenditure, in private investment, in the marginal saving rate ‘imposed’ on the eastern wing, in the utilisation of foreign aid and export proceeds and many other areas.
This growing disparity could only be redressed “by reversing the past ratios of regional allocation of total expenditures in favour of East Pakistan” in the Fourth Plan, the authors argued, urging that delay in this reallocation would only make the eventual adjustment more difficult.
“The problem is already acute now as a drastic reversal of policy will cause a sudden retardation of the growth rate in West Pakistan,” the report states, showing the sensitivity the authors had to the constraints faced by their colleagues from the West wing.
“We have proposed merely that the Fourth Plan allocation between East and West Pakistan be made in proportion to population,” they wrote, arguing that even this was an insufficient step and would require a bigger thrust in the subsequent Fifth Plan. “Our colleagues from West Pakistan, however, could not be persuaded to agree even to our moderate proposal.
“We could not communicate with each other adequately as to the urgency of removal of disparity,” they complained, adding that in moderating their demands, the West Pakistanis “were asking East Pakistan not only to forget the past inequities … but to wait for a long time to reach parity…. [and] to assume a disproportionate burden of the effort to build a more harmonious nation”.
The West Pakistani economists, in their separate report, did acknowledge the “considerable political sentiment” that the issue of regional disparity had created within the country, but expressed their helplessness to address the issue in the time allowed by one Five-Year Plan.
“We, the members of the panel from West Pakistan felt that our colleagues from East Pakistan were starting from certain rigid political parameters, and were not willing to give due consideration to the very real economic problems which would be faced by West Pakistan if a very sudden and sharp further reduction in the investment ratio of that wing were to take place,” they wrote.
“We further believe strongly that protecting growth in West Pakistan to the extent advocated by us is in the overall national interest” wrote the authors. “We understand and sympathise with the impatience of our colleagues. This impatience has grown as a result of failure of past attempts to arrest the growth of inter-wing disparity.”
The “impatience” of the East Pakistani economists grew out of a long history. In a separate appendix attached to their report, they noted that “East Pakistan’s long ridge of protest” began in the debates around the inception of the First Plan, and continued through the Second and Third Plan, and the first and second finance commissions.
“The irony is that, in essence, the East Pakistani members of this panel are not saying anything new,” they wrote and added that in 1962, during the finance commission discussions, their call for a more “harmonious national development” not only fell on deaf ears, but the then deputy chairman of the Planning Commission, “referred to some of the East Pakistani economists as ‘minions of foreign powers’ in a widely publicised radio broadcast”.
When submitting the Fourth Plan in July 1970, Mr M.M. Ahmed, then deputy chairman of the Planning Commission, made no mention of the split that had developed in the panel, saying only that drafting the plan has “been a difficult exercise”.
And then, in two sentences he added that “[i]t was gratifying for the Planning Commission that the recommendations finally made by it found unanimous approval of the National Economic Council. It is our earnest hope that the Fourth National Plan will find enthusiastic support both within the country and abroad.”
Less than a year later, the outcome of a national election was annulled and military action was ordered in the eastern wing. The earnest hopes of a gratified Mr Ahmed were dashed, and the worst fears of the East Pakistani economists had materialised as Pakistan began its final lap to a blood-soaked, rubble-strewn dismemberment.
Less than 10 months later, the flag of Bangladesh was hoisted atop the very buildings in Dacca where the economists of the eastern wing had earlier formulated their complaint.
“Will an impatient nation give us yet another chance?” the East economists had asked in closing their report. There was no more patience. There were no further chances.
The question of regional disparities is back vis-à-vis Balochistan. This time it’s more complicated since the disparities are not only economic. Let’s not walk down that road all over again.
The writer is a Karachi-based journalist covering business and economic policy.