Punjab budget

THE keepers of the provincial coffers in Punjab have had, as always, little choice this year except to manage things on a shoestring budget but Hasnain Bahadur Dreshak’s maiden speech in the provincial assembly on Saturday was an attempt to be as pragmatic as circumstances permitted him. However, he could have been a little more forthright in discussing problems which are not of his making. When figures begin to run into billions, they tend to fly beyond public comprehension.

Take education, for instance. The allocation for 2003-04 is a whopping 341 per cent higher than the current year’s development outlay. The government proposes to spend Rs. 42.023 billion on this sector. Much of it will be spent on unproductive and recurrent counts and leave little for the young to acquire gainful knowledge. There was no mention made in Mr Dreshak’s speech of the widening gap between private and public sector education. A lot of money is proposed for the Punjab Education Sector Reform Programme with World Bank assistance for several initiatives. Among these initiatives is the provision of free textbooks for children in primary schools, scholarships for class VI to VIII students and employing 15,000 teachers on contract in 2003-04. How many parents will be encouraged to send their children to public sector schools? Similarly, the creation of 60 community model schools does not even address the enormity of the problem. New universities in three more cities will only add to the academic chaos in the province. The current state policy of washing its hands of all responsibility to provide education in reflected in this budget as much as it did in the federal budget.

Agriculture and irrigation must remain on top of the provincial priorities. Lining 2,100 water courses to cut down on water losses in the ensuing fiscal year will take the Punjab nowhere, nor will it ensure optimum use of scarce irrigation resources. In irrigation, a major programme will involve a feasibility study of 40 small hydel power stations and new dams in Potohar. We then have modest allocations for reclaiming saline land and the construction of the Mial and Lehri dams and the Bhani drain. Development plans in the vital irrigation sector are, in brief, so modest that they will leave Punjab far short of its requirements at the end of the year. The budget makers have shown no sense of urgency in a field on which the very future of the Punjab’s rural economy depends. Similarly, livestock development should have received far greater attention than it has. A measly sum of Rs 90 million will be spent on animal production while Rs 80 million have been earmarked for research, education and training next year. All this is too short of the province’s livestock needs.

While the establishment of a tannery zone in Sialkot is to be welcomed, a similar initiative for Kasur - where tannery pollution has been a scandal for years - would have been equally important. A ‘major allocation’ for the environment department is the Rs 20 million set aside for the conservation policy of Punjab. Pollution is assuming alarming proportions in the province and it should have received far greater attention than a it has because it threatens to get out of hand, if it has not already done so. The industrial sector does not find more than passing mention in the budget and it can be safely said that the province has little or no plan for major industrial development.

Local government institutions get Rs 3.05 billion more than in the outgoing year, including allocations for 34 districts, 122 tehsil municipal administrations and 3,453 union councils for non-development and development programmes for 2003-04. If devolution is the government’s major priority, it remains to be seen as to what extent the new allocations help power to percolate down to the grassroots. It is not as though Mr Dreshak does not know where the shoe pinches, but he certainly does not have the means of preventing it from so doing. And, finally, one small problem for the minister. He told a news conference on Sunday that the Punjab would repay the federal government Rs 45 billion in the next three years to retire its cash development loans (CDLS) stock of Rs 83.74 billion. This will help the province save Rs 5.1 billion a year for development purposes. Again, easier said than done.

Unrest in Iran

LAST week’s student demonstrations in Tehran have now spread to two other Iranian cities. The growing anger expressed by the student community over the proposed privatization of Iranian universities has also come to involve other segments of society and people representing diverse interests have joined the protest rallies. That this is happening at a time when American forces are deployed at Iran’s doorstep should be a cause for worry, especially with the Bush administration’s declared aim of reshaping the region to suit the exigencies of US foreign policy on the Middle East. Signals emanating from Washington and Tehran in recent days threaten to move Iran up in the list of the countries with which the US wants to settle scores.

The on-going protests in the streets of Tehran, and now two other Iranian cities, have provided Washington just the right opportunity to put its weight behind the demands for a regime change in the Islamic republic. Tehran’s claim that the US-based pro-monarchy satellite channels beaming into Iranian cities are inciting the people to take to the streets is not without basis. The transformation of student protests into a wider anti-regime movement is a matter of legitimate concern for the Iranian government. The demonstrators’ anger appears to be directed at the Khatami government just as much as at the hardline conservatives, who have been blocking the former’s efforts to promote personal freedoms and curtail the authority of the conservative Guardian Council and the judiciary. Many young people feel frustrated at the Khatami government’s failure to implement reforms and are now asking it to step down. Anti-clerical sentiment has never before been expressed this boldly, and seems to echo the messages being broadcast by the US-based pro-monarchy channels beaming into Iran.

With the American forces deployed in Afghanistan in the east, Iraq in the west and the Gulf in the south, Tehran is virtually surrounded by a very hostile America in a belligerent mood. Washington’s allegations that Iran supports terrorism, harbours Al Qaeda operatives and is developing nuclear weapons, have limited the conservatives’ options in regard to controlling the on-going demonstrations. But this has not desisted the conservative-backed armed vigilante groups, the revolutionary guards and the Hezbollahis, to unleash highhanded action against unarmed demonstrators. The government, for its part, has also arrested a number of pro-reform leaders and threatened to clamp down on the anti-regime demonstrators with full force. The situation has sparked fears about Iran’s internal stability. Any destabilization of the Islamic republic at this point, however, is likely to benefit the US and Israel more than the Iranians themselves, or the region as a whole. It is therefore important that the EU and Russia play a more active role in restraining the Americans from overtly or covertly trying to bring the government in Tehran under pressure, either by inciting indigenous unrest or through outright invasion.

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