RARELY has a democratic government enjoyed a year such as 2015. For the government of Nawaz Sharif, opportunity was served up on a platter to set into motion far-reaching initiatives. Did they take advantage of the opportunity?
The year opened with the sound and fury of the dharnas receding, and the country pulling together under the banner of fighting militancy to the very end. There were a series of announcements at the start of the year, some that made headlines and others that passed largely unnoticed. The headlines were made by the 20 points of the National Action Plan (NAP) and the announcement of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Two issues that did not live long in the headlines, but were no less important, were the commitment to have a new National Finance Commission (NFC) award, and the promise to hold a population census by March of 2016.
As the year draws to an end, how much progress did we really see on these fronts?
As the year draws to a close, how much progress did we really see on some very crucial fronts?
NAP has had mixed results, and the last few days of the year 2015 have seen the political consensus behind it starting to come under pressure. The PPP is now referring to it as the PML(N) Action Plan and accusing the government of using the enhanced powers obtained under it to target political opponents.
One of the crucial components of NAP was the commitment to pursue terror financing, and here too hardly any advancement seems to have been made. Other than a few arrests, no systemic architecture to monitor and intercept terror financing has been laid down, and at one point in the middle of the year, Nacta was even caught serving up misleading numbers to the prime minister about the amount of money frozen under terror financing stipulations.
CPEC has enjoyed a prominent place in the headlines, and the closing days of the year saw three large projects attain financial close — Thar coal, the Orange Line, and a coal-fired power plant at Port Qasim. All three are to be welcomed, even though some environmental issues still bedevil the Orange Line project.
In other areas though, CPEC hit some hurdles. The Quaid-i-Azam solar park was successfully launched and began generating its power this year. But the second generation solar tariff announced for the next round of investments in utility scale solar power plants have seen the upfront tariff reduced sharply, giving them reason to reconsider whether they wish to continue with their plans or not. The costs of CPEC projects are tallying up a lot faster than the hype around the projects, and unless there is more transparency about the financing arrangements under which the projects are being initiated, it is impossible to say whether their impact will be as beneficial and “transformative” as we are being told.
The NFC award got off to a weak start. The only meeting on this crucial topic was held in April. Initially, everyone waited for Sindh to nominate a member, and now the wait is on for Punjab to nominate a member since their last nominee became the provincial finance minister.
The last fiscal year closed without any new agreement, and currently the country is operating under a makeshift arrangement that continues the conditions of the last award. The president granted the last NFC award one more year while a new agreement is reached, but thus far it doesn’t appear like any meetings have taken place between the provinces and the centre, despite six months having elapsed since the extension was granted on July 1. It is possible that an agreement could be reached in the next six months, but given the state of the centre’s relations with the provincial governments of Sindh and KP, it’s a fair bet that this will take very tricky and skilful politics to pull off.
Then there is the population census, announced in March of 2015, and promised to be done by March of 2016. By September, the plan for the census included updating the census blocks and surveying all big mauzas with GPS. By now, digitised maps of urban areas ought to have been made, blocks updated in the database, mauzas surveyed with more than 50 teams, and a total of Rs1.2 billion released and spent on the exercise.
Today, the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics secretary confirms that Rs600 million have been released, and by January another Rs1.2bn will be released. He insists the exercise is fully on track but is now entirely conditional upon the army agreeing to provide the manpower for security. “We did whatever we could do,” he says with reference to the groundwork necessary for the census exercise. Mauzas need to be surveyed, census blocks need to be updated, digitised maps of urban areas need to be prepared. “Where possible, we have updated the information, where it was not possible, we will proceed with the older blocks, but the census exercise will not be delayed on account of these things,” he insists.
If the census is actually held on time, or even with some delays, it will be a big win for the PML-N government, especially if the results do not become controversial. The lack of a census has hampered policymaking and implementation for over a decade now, and if the year 2015 ends up being a turning point in this extended stalemate over the exercise, it will be a big positive coming out of the year.
We can debate the larger macroeconomic questions of 2015 all over again — the rising debt burden, the anaemic growth, the fall in foreign investment and exports and so on. But the issues that are structural in nature and that can actually help break the quagmire that our economic status quo is turning into, are issues like security, political stability, centre-province relations, stable government finances, and updated census information. The year 2015 served up a mixed bag of accomplishments on these fronts, but on the balance, more opportunities were lost than were seized. Let’s hope 2016 is an improvement.
The writer is a member of staff.
Published in Dawn, December 31st, 2015