Bush's downward slide
President George W. Bush faces major obstacles in his bid for re-election. There is a growing perception that President Bush and the coterie of neo-conservatives who exercise the greatest influence on his thinking led the nation into a war on false pretexts.
Perhaps, this could have been forgiven, but the lack of preparation for the aftermath of the war, the underestimation of the resistance and the mismanagement of a perilous situation by a Pentagon-nominated team has led not only to a high rate of American casualties but to the belief that it will be difficult for the Americans to extricate themselves from this quagmire.
The disclosure of prisoner abuse by American soldiers in Abu Ghraib prison, the consequent global pillorying of Americans and the sense of outrage within America itself has only served to further alienate the American voter.
Current trends are a far cry from the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Then the American tradition of rallying around whatever leader they had in a time of crisis gave President Bush approval ratings higher than any seen on the American political landscape in recent years.
Now, for the first time since 9/11, Bush's approval rating has fallen, according to an ABC-News poll, the results of which were released on May 24, the day the president made his famous Iraq speech.
He garnered only a 47 per cent approval rating. In the same poll, 46 per cent of registered voters said they would vote for Bush if the election were held on that day, 46 per cent said they would opt for Kerry, and four per cent for the independent Ralph Nader.
Without Nader factored into the competition, Kerry led Bush by 49 per cent to 47 per cent. A month earlier, Bush had led Kerry 48-43 per cent with Nader at six per cent.
Other elements of the polls were equally disquieting. They showed that just four in 10 Americans gave the president positive marks for his handling of Iraq, the lowest since he launched the conflict in March 2003.
A 58 per cent majority said that US forces should remain in Iraq until that country was stabilized, even at the risk of more casualties, but this too reflected a decline from the 66 per cent support that was expressed a month earlier. More worryingly from the administration's perspective, the percentage favouring a troop withdrawal reached 40 per cent.
In his speech on May 24, billed as the first of a number of pronouncements that Bush was to make to explain the Iraq policy and to set at rest the American public's doubts and misgivings, the president offered no apologies for having been misled into waging a war on the false assumption that Saddam posed a WMD threat.
He mentioned the Abu Ghraib prison abuses but attributed these to the disgraceful conduct of a few American soldiers who had brought discredit to the country. He ignored allegations that these abuses could not have been carried out without sanction at a higher level.
His focus was on emphasizing that his administration would stay the course and on proposing a five-point plan under which it would "...hand over authority to a sovereign Iraqi government, help establish security, continue rebuilding Iraq's infrastructure, encourage more international support, and move toward a national election that will bring forward new leaders empowered by the Iraqi people."
He maintained that the new interim government would be chosen by UN special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi. Developments on the ground gave the lie to this assertion.
A couple of days after the speech, President Bush's representative in Iraq, Paul Bremer, apparently accepted the demand of the Iraqi Governing Council that one of their members, Ayad Alawi, be nominated as the new prime minister confronting Brahimi with a fait accompli.
For the UN, the position is almost untenable. Mr Brahimi had started out with the notion, and this was implicitly if not explicitly approved by the Americans, that the new interim government - the principal function of which would be to arrange for elections at the end of the year - should be composed of technocrats who would clearly disavow political ambitions for the future.
Whether he said this publicly or not, Mr Brahimi was aware of the fact that most of the members of the Iraqi Governing Council were nominees of the Americans with little or no public support in Iraq.
Many were those who had in long years of exile sought to build support bases in Washington and London rather than in Baghdad and Kirkuk. He knew that they had tried to use their Iraqi Governing Council membership to build a political base of support within the country and had failed.
The Americans started having second thoughts after their proteges on the council balked at the idea and insisted on their inclusion in the new entity. Mr Brahimi was then required to change his mind and to attribute this to the consultations that he had with Iraqis from all walks of life.
He started putting together a list of Shias from whom the most suitable could be selected for the office of prime minister - the most important office in the new set-up and one that had to be earmarked for the majority Shia community. So far so good.
His first nominee, Mr Shehristani, a distinguished nuclear scientist who had been imprisoned by Saddam for refusing to participate in his nuclear programme and who since the American occupation had been leading an NGO effort to provide relief to impoverished Iraqis, was opposed apparently by the Iraqi Governing Council, and withdrew his name from consideration.
He was then informed that the Iraqi Governing Council had decided that Ayad Alawi, a known US confidante and the recipient of CIA funding, would be the new prime minister and that this decision had been endorsed by the Americans. Mr Brahimi probably felt he had no choice but to endorse the decision even while making it clear that this was not a UN selection.
Mr Brahimi is continuing because, according to some reports, he believes that he still has a useful role to play in the selection of the rest of the cabinet and the consultative council. Nobody now believes, however, that the new government will be anything other than a US selected group.
The erosion of the role of the UN in the process of selecting a new government will be important for some members of the UN Security Council. But this is not the only question. The degree of sovereignty being transferred is another important issue.
Many members of the Security Council have indicated that their assessment of the level of sovereignty being transferred would depend on whether or not the Iraqis gain control over their own security forces and have the right to direct the actions of the UN-mandated force led by the Americans that the US-UK resolution proposes.
The Americans have said that the Iraqi security forces would report to their own government. It is clear, however, that at least for the foreseeable future their activities would have to be coordinated with the Americans and probably carried out at their direction.
The UN-mandated force would, of course, continue to be under the command of the Americans. They would negotiate with the new government an agreement on the legal status of the forces on Iraqi soil but it is apparent in the various vague answers given by American spokesmen that while the Americans may consult with the Iraqi government, they would not give the Iraqis a veto over their actions.
The more important problem may well turn out to be, in terms of Bush's re-election prospects, the reaction within the US. By all accounts, Bush's speech proved to be a damp squib and did nothing to enhance his image as a charismatic leader with credible and coherent policies. The speech was meant to be the first of five that Bush was to make. The other speeches if they have been made have received little publicity.
American casualties are beginning to weigh heavily with domestic public opinion, not necessarily because casualties are high but because of questions regarding the validity of the war.
The benchmark for a successful war is said to be the first Gulf War in which, according to a military analyst, the losses in terms of the dead and wounded were 0.14 per cent of the total number of soldiers deployed.
In the Second World War, the ratio was 6.5 per cent. In the present war, 808 service people have died in Iraq (666 of them from hostile fire), and more than 4,500 have been wounded (of whom 1,769 returned to duty within 72 hours).
This gives a casualty ratio of 2.5 per cent if only the 200,000 who have actually served in Iraq are counted. If, on the other hand, support personnel in the air force etc. are added, the ratio falls to 1.5 per cent.
Similarly, the prisoner abuse outrage, if viewed in the light of precedent, is not unique. It would probably have been glossed over had the operation gone well. Today, it is making Americans ask questions about who should bear responsibility.
There are also questions about how the entire war, including the prisoner scandal, is creating new enemies for the US and is giving fresh impetus to the recruitment drive of Al Qaeda and similar organizations.
Certainly, there is little faith in the assertions that only a handful of renegade soldiers had broken the military code and flouted the Geneva Conventions.
The credibility of the Bush administration and the main plank of his campaign - the war against terrorism - has not been enhanced by the fact that the secretary for homeland security, Tom Ridge, maintained that no new terror threats have emerged while Attorney-General Ashcroft, on the same day, said that the Al Qaeda had completed 90 per cent of its preparations for another attack on the US mainland.
Bush's only consolation may be that his Democratic opponent Senator Kerry has so far had a lack-lustre campaign, and apart from emphasizing that only he, rather than Bush, can build the international alliance needed to resolve the Iraq issue, has virtually endorsed the main elements of the current Iraq policy. Kerry's failures may not, however, be enough to overcome the rapidly rising anti-Bush tide.
The writer is a former foreign secretary.
Allegations most unbecoming
At a largely attended public meeting in Karachi on May 25, the acting head of the MMA and the Amir of Jamaat-e-Islami, Qazi Hussain Ahmed is reported to have spoken as follows according to a leading English newspaper (not Dawn). As the version below has not been contradicted it has to be presumed that it is an accurate report of what he said.
"Qazi Hussain said that the rulers had given total authority to the Aga Khan Foundation for establishing a new education system in the country. "The MMA chief said that the same task was assigned to the Qadiani community but the people of Pakistan launched a movement against them and finally they failed in their plans.
He warned the Aga Khan Foundation and Ismaili community that people would also launch a movement against them if they continued to impose a secular education system in Pakistan".
This is not the place for a detailed discussion on a "secular system of education" and an "Islamic system of education". Both systems can have a great deal in common and need not be antithetical to each other.
Aided regrettably by the Urdu press which is so important a part of our media sector because it commands over 90 per cent of all readership, the religious sector has completely distorted the real meaning of the word "secular" which is often translated into Urdu as laadiniat or "without faith" or "atheistic".
Whereas the relevant meaning of "secular" is simply that politics and religion should be treated as separate realms, as in the context defined by Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah in his speech to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan on August 11, 1947, when he said that the religion of citizens should not affect the work of the state.
A secular state can have more truly religious values in its policies than a state that claims to be religious but which applies non-Islamic elements of dictatorship, monarchy, persecution of minorities, and which permits barbaric torture in police stations. So the continuing portrait of an ideal Muslim state or society as being opposite to a "secular" state is misleading, ill-founded and untenable.
The Aga Khan's education services facilitate and assist the government of Pakistan only by invitation, not by imposition, to help improve content, teaching skills and resource development.
The final responsibility for deciding what goes into school textbooks rests jointly with the federal and the provincial governments and not with a non-official body like the Aga Khan Foundation.
The views and threats by the politico-religious leader are offensive for the following reasons: a) violation of the Constitution of Pakistan whose principles of public policy and whose substantive provisions guarantee freedom of religion and security of citizens and which prohibit persecution or harassment of any individual or community on the basis of religion, sect, gender or race; b) such statements are also subject to the enforcement of relevant provisions of the Pakistan Penal Code such as Sections 295-A and 298-A which categorize utterances that outrage anyone's religious sensibilities and use of derogatory words against someone's religious beliefs as being subject to punitive action; c) the said statement violates the values and norms of a civilized society in general and of a Muslim nation in particular; d) the statement injects into the political discourse of the country a new and poisonous virus of mistrust and hate.
Do the facts justify the threats? The Ismaili community is a minority sect within Islam with certain distinct practices and features which certainly set them apart from the mainstream Sunni and Shia sects.
However, the Ismailis accept the finality of the Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him). Therefore, the attempt to equate Qadianis with Ismailis, in however indirect a manner, is wholly baseless and unjustified.
The reverence with which the Aga Khan is regarded by the members of the Ismaili community is quite distinct. Yet it is not very different from the blind obedience with which members of other sects in Islam pay tribute to their respective leaders.
The spectacle of virtual tomb worship and self-abnegation which is visible at every major shrine and dargah throughout the country is testimony as to how a showy piety has taken the place of genuinely good actions.
The grandfather of the present Aga Khan had a controversial role with the British as a colonial power before Independence in 1947, even though the same Aga Khan played a crucial role in the founding of the All India Muslim League in Dhaka in 1906.
But controversy of one kind or another is also associated with several other political leaders, including Maulana Abul Ala Maudoodi whose writings are the inspiration for the Jamaat's foundation and who, in the opinion of many, was opposed to the creation of Pakistan and to the Quaid-i-Azam.
The philanthropy of the Aga Khan and the services rendered by the network of the Aga Khan Foundation and by Ismaili-related organizations have benefited our country directly in the fields of education, health, management enterprise, hotels and tourism.
Most recently, through an open and transparent process, the Aga Khan group has secured management control of Habib Bank Limited, one of the premier financial institutions of our country.
In practical terms, the Ismaili community has benefited the lives of millions of Pakistanis, the overwhelming majority of whom are non-Ismailis. In all the work associated with the Aga Khan Foundation, whether it be the hospital and the university in Karachi, whether it be the numerous other health centres and institutions, where educational programmes are developed, standards of excellence have been set and maintained.
It is also true that there is a perception amongst many that in its services and priorities, the network tends to discriminate in favour of Ismailis. There are also frequent complaints about excessive financial charges or of occasional negligence and incompetence in its health services.
However true or false some of these perceptions and some of this information may be, one has never come across a single charge laid against the Aga Khan or against the Ismaili community of trying to convert non-Ismailis to their own sect, or of in any way interfering with the practices of other religions and sects.
The very opposite is true. Ismailis are among the most tolerant, peaceful, law-abiding and disciplined citizens of the country. They are highly productive and industrious, contributing substantially to wealth generation, to income tax and other taxes, to public service and to national development.
It is ironic that the Ismaili community and the Jamaat-i-Islami have much in common. Both are minorities. One as a sect of Islam, the other as a political party. Both are tightly disciplined entities and practice a high work ethic. Both follow a professional approach in their respective areas of interest and both have strong, stable financial resources.
But here the similarities end. Where the head of the Ismaili community is chosen according to the principle of heredity, the head of the Jamaat-i-Islami is elected, albeit by a relatively small number of electors, but through an open and competitive process.
The quoted observations by the head of the MMA are extremely unfair. They have already created unwarranted misperceptions about Ismailis in the minds of thousands of people who attended the public meeting on May 25.
These, in turn, will share these misperceptions with thousands more. The consequences are unpredictable and potentially destructive. A small sign was the fact that in response to the brutal killing of Mufti Shamzai in Karachi on May 30, mobs burnt an Aga Khan Foundation Diagnostic Centre in Gulshan-i-Iqbal and another on Business Recorder Road.
Other targets were also hit by the mobs. But was this also partly due to the wholly false allegations made by the Jamaat-e-Islami leader against the Aga Khan five days earlier, painting him as an "un-Islamic" or a "secular" figure?
It is pertinent to remember that, whereas religious leaders are free and able to make such false utterances to thousands of people and to have them reported widely by the press and media, there is no reciprocal reaction by the Aga Khan and his followers.
This is partly due to perhaps their desire not to fuel a controversy and mainly due to the relatively docile, non-violent and non-intimidatory character of the Ismaili community as a whole which tries to tread very carefully in such situations. Be that as it may, the scope for inflaming passions remains heavily weighted in favour of the religious parties.
The silence of the federal and provincial governments concerning the remarks quoted at the start of this article and the absence of any statement by any political leader refuting the accusations are indicators of how easily official as well as political leadership is intimidated by those who claim to be the sole custodians of Islam and who have, de-facto, become a self-appointed clergy in a faith that does not permit such interlocutors between Allah and His believers.
If we continue to permit inflammatory falsehoods to be spoken in public and be reported in the media, we are worsening conditions for violence at precisely the time when we need to build peace through tolerance and cohesion.
The government should take immediate cognizance of the baseless charges made on May 25 by taking appropriate action and by requesting the courts to hold accountable all those who make such statements.
The writer is a former senator and information minister.
Israeli voices of sanity
Israel's Operation Rainbow in Gaza's Rafah refugee camp over the past few weeks has aroused condemnation from many quarters. The Arab world, of course; human rights groups; the US State Department (but not the White House); and the EU have all criticized at least some (Colin Powell could not bring himself to fault the entire operation) of the Israeli Defence Force's actions in Rafah. The most telling critics, though, have been Israelis themselves.
Tommy Lapid, Israeli justice minister, shocked his cabinet colleagues when he said the pictures of an old woman in Rafah, picking through the rubble of her home for medicine, reminded him of his grandmother, killed by the Nazis in the Holocaust.
"The demolition of houses in Rafah must stop. It is not humane, not Jewish and causes us great damage in the world. At the end of the day they'll kick us out of the United Nations, try those responsible in the international court in The Hague, and no one will want to speak to us."
Lapid was right to make comparisons with the Nazi Holocaust, but wrong to warn of dire consequences. The scale and nature of the crimes being committed by Israel against the Palestinians are nothing compared to those of the Nazis against the Jews.
But they still constitute systematic oppression and destruction of a particular people because of their identity: in this there are no differences between what Israel is doing today and what Hitler did 60 years ago.
Where Israeli culpability overtakes the Nazis' is that, as victims of the Holocaust themselves, they know all too well how it feels to be on the receiving end. Yet that knowledge has not stayed their hand.
In fact, they are also more guilty because they are operating in a context 60 years forward in history - 60 years in which one would expect the world to have advanced in its respect for human rights, not be stuck at the same level as 1945.
But as for being thrown out of the United Nations or facing trial in The Hague, that is a non-starter. So long as Washington continues to turn a blind eye to Israeli excesses, no one else will take any action against Tel Aviv.
That non-seeing, readily forgiving American eye was all too evident after the worst Rafah attack in which a tank shell lobbed into a crowd of civilian demonstrators killed at least 10 Palestinians, some of them young children. While the State Department condemned the attack, the US president, George W. Bush, remained conspicuously silent.
One day before the shell incident, addressing a pro-Israel audience, Bush drew direct parallels between the two countries' "struggles against terrorism". There might be direct parallels between the carnage being inflicted by Israel and America on Palestinians and Iraqis respectively, but as far as "struggles against terrorism" are concerned, the only parallels are in the two governments' ability to twist, spin and lie.
The Israeli spin machine describes the Rafah operation as a move to destroy terrorist hideouts, tunnels and bomb factories. Palestinians present a quite different explanation for Operation Rainbow, one that has little to do with security and terrorist threats, and much to do with revenge and collective punishment.
Cynics would argue that, of course, the Palestinians are going to say that. But what about Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth? Yedioth Ahronoth could not be described as a natural supporter of Palestinian views. Yet in its editorial the paper too said Operation Rainbow had little to do with tunnel-busting.
"This is a strong-armed operation intended to dull the impression - in both Israeli and Palestinian consciousness - of the attacks in which 13 Israeli soldiers were killed. In delicate language, this is 'searing the consciousness'. In slightly less polite wording, this is revenge, pure and simple."
Additional explanations put forward for Operation Rainbow relate to the long-promised - but still not implemented - Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. Prime Minister Sharon wants to dispel any potential impression that Israel is fleeing: hence the "ground razing" policy.
Both Lapid's and Yedioth Ahronoth's words are damning. But the truest and most searing commentary - though one that has received far less publicity - came from former deputy mayor of Jerusalem Meron Benvenisti.
Writing in Ha'aretz he told readers: "The sights of Rafah are too difficult to bear - trails of refugees alongside carts laden with bedding and the meagre contents of their homes; children dragging suitcases larger than themselves; women, draped in black, kneeling in mourning on piles of rubble."
That was bad, but there was worse to come. Pointing to the comparisons between the present Palestinian exodus and that of 1948, he noted how the sons and grandsons of the original Israeli evictors are today displacing the sons and grandsons of those 1948 refugees. The tragedy and cruelty of history being repeated.
Benvenisti's most powerful words, though, were reserved for the end. He posed a question that goes to the very heart of the Middle East tragedy: "Is there some 'original sin' that lies at the foundation of the Zionist enterprise? Those who initiated the Rafah operation, and those executing it, should know that one of the outcomes of their actions will inevitably be the raising of questions about this heresy."
Benvenisti called it "heresy" but in fact what he said was "truth". Israel is a country founded on "original sin": the expulsion of a people from their land and the theft of that land.
There is no justification - there can never be any justification - for that sin: not morally and certainly not legally. Zionist arguments that the Holocaust had to be compensated for with a Jewish homeland, or Orthodox claims to the Holy Land described in Jewish scripture, are both disingenuous.
Why should the Palestinians have to compensate for the crimes of others? Since when has one man's religious scripture decided the fate of another man's land?
An enterprise launched in sin can never wash itself clean of the stench. It especially cannot do so when the original sin is supplemented by more: more Arabs being displaced from their homes, more Jews stealing Palestinian land, more denial of Palestinian rights, and more violence and bloodshed.
Because of its original and subsequent sins, Israel will never be able to sit comfortably on the land it stole. It will always be damned by the curses of the displaced. Look for the root causes of Operation Rainbow and you eventually - inevitably - arrive at this answer.
Lapid, Yedioth Ahronoth and Benvenisti all voiced varying degrees of truth. Lapid pointed out the immorality of Operation Rainbow, Yehdioth Ahronoth the lies and spin that surround it, and Benvenisti the deep-rooted malaise of which it is just one small part. These are all Israeli voices of truth. That is what is so remarkable about them: that is what should make the world take notice.
The gap between promise and performance
The size of Pakistan's economy will reach $100 billion by the end of this month, also the close of the financial year, claims finance minister Shaukat Aziz. That is a big leap forward from the earlier estimate of $85 billion, far exceeding a growth rate of six per cent in the economy or even the more optimistic 6.6 per cent. Per capita income is said to have risen to $600.
The Annual Survey of The World in 2004 by The Economist, however, places Pakistan's GDP figure this year at $83 billion. Evidently, Finance Minister Shaukat Aziz has done some "revaluation" of the relevant figures and the outcome has been a higher economic growth. This jugglery has allowed Mr Aziz to arrive at the happy figure of $100 billion.
If the finance minister is right, the people will expect a larger share of the cake in the new financial year which also marks the fifth year of General Musharraf's economic reform programme.
The finance minister has to deliver now if he wants the people to believe they will be better off when the economy achieves a growth rate of eight per cent in under three years, as one-third of the population live below the poverty line of a dollar a day.
As the private sector is not investing as much as it should, the bulk of investment is being carried on by the government largely in the public sector. The government is to spend Rs. 278 billion on poverty reduction next year.
In the nine months ending March, it has already spent Rs. 158 billion out of Rs. 238.8 billion allocated for the year. It has to spend Rs. 80.8 billion in the last quarter rather hurriedly. Can this amount be productively spent? Haste makes waste.
We are fighting poverty on a long-term basis, says General Musharraf, to warn the people not to expect quick results. However, this statement has been made by each one of Pakistan's four military rulers. But, the rich are becoming richer while the number of poor and illiterate people appears to increase as the population grows.
The annual public sector outlay is to be Rs. 202 billion in fiscal 2004-05. Out of that, Rs. 120 billion is to be spent on three major sectors - infrastructure development, agriculture and water sector development.
We are also told that Rs. 300 billion worth of water projects launched in 2001 would not be completed by 2007 as per schedule, if large funds are not allocated in 2004-2005, 2005-06 and 2006-07.
What matters is not only planning and promises but also earmarking funds and making full use of them. Otherwise, agriculture will suffer grievously, as it has done over the past few years.
In the current financial year, while the development outlay was raised to Rs. 160 billion from around Rs. 100 billion, in reality 30 per cent of the funds are likely to lapse for want of timely utilization.
This will happen despite the decision of the National Economic Council in March this year that development funds would not be allowed to lapse for three years. But such protection needs the approval of the NEC and the parliament - a complex process.
Official documents show that the utilization of the development funds during the first nine months of the current year ending March were as low as 48.6 per cent compared to 58 per cent in the same period last year.
That means the capacity of the centre, the provinces and local bodies to absorb and utilize funds has to be improved substantially. Such capacity-building has become absolutely essential if the country is to benefit from domestic investment, development and the foreign aid being negotiated by the government.
Rs. 100 billion may be reserved for education in the next budget (that includes the federal and provincial education budgets) compared to Rs. 80 billion in the current year.
Out of the Rs. 100 billion, Rs. 9.6 billion will be made available for higher education against Rs. 5 billion in the current year. The question remains: how have the funds been utilized and what has been the result since indicators still show a staggering illiteracy rate for Pakistan.
Meanwhile, Wapda's line losses have risen by six per cent in three months - from 21 per cent at the end of December 2003, to 27 per cent by the end of March. The rise represents an additional loss of Rs. 14.5 billion. Official figures of Wapda and the KESC submitted to the IMF by the ministry of finance show that losses during the third quarter rose by two per cent above the target of 25 per cent for the quarter.
This means that Wapda may lose Rs. 65 billion during the current year, a one per cent loss costing Rs 2.4 billion. While the losses of Wapda and the KESC are heavy, the people are being subjected to frequent loadshedding and breakdown of the supply system. Power riots are becoming a common feature.
While there is much talk about funding water supply and irrigation, 350 breaches in the LBOD in Sindh have still to be plugged almost a year after the rains and just before the rainy season is due to start again.
Press reports say that rain victims are still suffering from hunger, disease and various forms of malnutrition as the government has failed to compensate them for the heavy losses they suffered after last year's rains and floods.
At least 350,000 people of 16 union councils are said to be exposed to the dangers of open breaches - a situation that can worsen when the monsoons start. Moreover, day after day, people continue to die of drinking contaminated water. Many are still ailing from its effects. Keenjhar Lake, too, has been affected by the contaminated water.
Not one official has been punished for allowing such hardships and calamities. Belatedly, some inquiries have been ordered. All this is the outcome of the feudal set-up that dominates the province. Many of the victims are small children.
While the poor are being asked to wait for real relief, government employees are compensated promptly. Under General Musharraf, they had two pay rises and a third and the largest is to come now as part of the budget.
When the salaries and perks of the prime minister, chief ministers and ministers and members of the assemblies have been more than doubled, the government employees cannot be denied their periodic salary rise, especially at a time of inflation. When salaries go up, pensions, too, must rise.
Another argument advanced is that low pay breeds corruption. Hence, wages must be raised from time to time, particularly when figures for inflation are far more than official statistics.
The World Bank, too, supports this argument. But no one has made a study of how much corruption has been reduced after each substantial pay increase, or how honest are the well-paid. Some study ought to be made in this area.
The problem of public servants' pay bill would not have been so overwhelming and the pension burden so heavy, if the total number of government employees did not exceed four million, inclusive of federal, provincial and local bodies employees.
That also increases the red tape within the government and corruption. Despite the reported reduction of defence personnel on the support side by 50,000, the defence budget may go up from the current Rs. 160 billion. This year it rose by Rs. 14 billion from last year's Rs. 146 billion.
What about the US military aid of $1.5 billion spread over five years, which means $300 million a year on an average? Can that help reduce defence allocation? In the past, defence aid from the US meant larger allocations from our side too. Will that happen this time too, apart from larger allocations towards fighting terrorism and crime?
Prime Minister Jamali is taking a keen interest in the budget formulation. He has been asking the finance minister to be in constant touch with the stakeholders and accommodate their views as much as possible.
He wants to use the fiscal space which has now become available to help wage earners and the poor classes. He also wants the budget to help achieve the projected economic growth of eight per cent within three years.
Mr Jamali says the government is trying to promote a welfare-oriented and people-friendly budget, and that he wants the budget to include investment promotion as well.
The way to help the poor is either to reduce taxes, or lower essential prices or do both. Initially, the threshold for paying income tax is to be raised to Rs. 100,000 from Rs. 80,000 and the sales tax is to be reduced from 15 per cent to 12 per cent and the varied GST rates to be eliminated or reduced.
Dr. Ishrat Husain, governor of the State Bank of Pakistan, has also come up with an eight-point programme for solving the economic problems of the country. He wants a rapid improvement in agricultural productivity, pointing out that the contribution of agriculture to the GNP has come down to 23 per cent from 25.
Some experts suggest the way to achieve high agricultural productivity is through effective and meaningful land reforms. Dr Husain is opposed to that. He would have advocated land reforms 50 years ago and not now, he argues.
Is the present land tenure system truly helpful to high agricultural productivity? In India after the land reforms, productivity went up as the owners of small farms tried to get more out of their lands.
The present feudal order is not only an economic order but also a social, cultural, and political order where the landlords hold sway over their respective areas where there are private jails and bonded labour.
Hence, the feudal order needs to be revised even though Prime Minister Jamali is opposed to land reforms. The comprehensive domination of the feudal system in the rural areas and the political set-up at the top need a detailed study and better understanding.