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The budget & the people

Updated May 25, 2017


THE federal budget for 2017-18 is about to be presented. Should we expect, on this occasion, a revival of the tradition that the government must disclose at least once a year its plans for the advancement of the rights and interests of the people, especially the underprivileged?

Almost all representative governments unveil their plans for citizens’ good, usually through an address by the head of state to parliament at its inaugural sessions. A discussion on this address could reveal the points on which a national consensus is possible and also matters on which the people’s representatives are divided. This system fell into disuse in Pakistan when presidents became controversial and discussion on their addresses to parliament was reduced to a banal ritual.

The presentation of the annual federal budget is now the only occasion for the government to reveal, through plans for the husbanding of the state’s resources, its social-sector objectives and priorities. The freedom the parliamentarians enjoy during the budget session to speak at length on any aspect of governance makes a thorough analysis of the government’s policies possible.

To what extent has the people’s interest determined the government’s priorities?

It is, therefore, not unreasonable to urge the government to inform the people, during the budget session, of the measures it will adopt to promote public welfare. This can also be an appropriate opportunity for describing how the state’s obligations under the various international treaties will be met. Some of these treaties require Islamabad to declare how much money will be earmarked, for instance, for improvement in women’s condition under the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women or for children’s welfare under the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Sadly enough, media reports on budget-related matters, including the discussion held at a cabinet meeting, do not indicate the extent to which the people’s interest has determined the budgetary priorities.

We are told that the overall size of the budget has been fixed at Rs4.8 trillion, which is 7 per cent higher than the current year’s original figure; that growth rate target for the next fiscal has been set at 6pc; that special efforts will be made to attract remittances from foreign countries and to reduce imports; and that the core development expedition is to be increased. All this is very well in the eyes of accountants who visualise the budget merely as an exercise to balance the entries in the revenue and expenditure columns.

What we should like to hear from the finance minister is the kind of progress made on realising the Sustainable Development Goals; how many people will be relieved of abject poverty; what percentage of the homeless will get a roof over their heads; how will school enrolment be raised; how many new jobs will be created; and to what extent the gender gap in various fields will be reduced.

The government holds on the eve of the budget session some sort of consultation with representatives of business and industry. This is as it should be. Indeed, these consultations should be made more meaningful. However, no exchange of views is held with other stakeholders, such as women’s representatives, professional groups (lawyers, doctors, teachers) and the youth. Also left out are small farmers, landless peasants and farm labour who have no voice, and labour in both formal and informal sectors who may be able to speak but are rarely listened to.

At the moment, we should like to ask the government to address the plight of the tillers of the soil and workers, who together constitute a majority of the population.

True, the agricultural community has received some attention over the past couple of years. Much is being said about the success of the prime minister’s package for farmers. But agricultural issues cannot be resolved through ad hoc steps. The state continues to ignore the urgency of land reform that is necessary not only to reduce land hunger and create new proprietor-cultivators but also to rid the country’s politics of the feudal stranglehold.

It is time the government broke its silence on this fundamental requisite to socioeconomic progress.

Likewise, many of the workers’ demands are unexceptionable. These include: due freedom for trade union activity, the right to a fair wage, an increase in old age pension, continuation of medical allowance to those who retire under social security cover, and women workers’ right to equal wage.

An extremely useful conference on the challenges faced by the country’s labour, organised by the ILO in Islamabad recently, offered much food for thought on a variety of issues, such as the formulas for wage-setting, implementation of minimum wage decisions, improving respect for labour standards, better coordination of labour-related policies and imports on exports, and the urgency of narrowing the wide gender gap in employment and wage levels. The government could benefit from these and other ILO recommendations.

The commitment to the ideal of a welfare state demands that every effort be made towards guaranteeing citizens their basic rights to decent work and a decent wage. Many of such matters no doubt fall in the jurisdiction of provinces but the federal government could promote a consensus among them through the Council of Common Interests. It might be said that the entire development plan is geared towards benefiting the people. All this did not convince the informed citizens in the past, it will not convince them now. We have seen the people getting poorer while states became richer.

The custodians of Pakistan’s economy must not forget that their success will be judged less by the rate of GDP growth and more by their ability to help the poverty-stricken masses to gain freedom from hunger, disease and want that they as of right deserve.

Published in Dawn, May 25th, 2017