Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah, keen to make a mark as an achiever, presented a well-crafted budget 2017-18 that aimed to achieve the most for Sindh without tinkering with the obstructive power structure of the province.

Deeply aware of his limitations CM Shah avoided innovative solutions for a development breakthrough and opted to play it safe in an election year. Tax collector’s proposals to broaden the service tax net or the introduction of meaningful agriculture income tax were not even considered this time around.

“Instead of aiming for the stars, he focused on delivering achievable growth by timely release of funds and improving the province’s economic management on the strength of his economic team”, a supporter defended the strategy.

Will the budget help achieve the stated goal of delivering inclusive growth?

In the budget he did allocate significantly more for the social sector than last year as his proposals stretched development spending to a record high. Will the budget help achieve the stated goal of delivering inclusive growth?

“Not in a meaningful way, but the government will try to complete some trophy projects in road infrastructure, power, water and the social sector for the party to return to voters next year with not just promises but at least some certificates of performance as well”, commented an economist.

It would, perhaps, be unrealistic to expect dramatic outcomes from one budget to perfectly compensate for years of underperformance. Why did the ruling party not do enough?

“With a secured constituency in rural Sindh, there probably was no real pressure on the Pakistan Peoples’ Party to try new solutions for old, deep-seated, problems. The budget 2017-18 did reflect a desire to improve optics before elections next year in order to serve the party’s image more than the people”, commented a Sindh watcher.

The contentment in the voter base of the ruling party is not linked to a stellar performance but attributed more to political influence.

Except for telephony and greater access to media and information technology, the life of an average family in interior Sindh has not changed much under PPP rule. Growth in agriculture has been moderate/low and erratic and the industrial base has yet to reach rural areas.

The fact is that in terms of jobs, access to education/health facilities, water and power, the pace of progress in the province has actually been slower than other provinces as expressed in social indicators. However, schemes of direct monthly cash transfers to poor families have consolidated the party’s support in vulnerable segments.

According to some critics and businessmen the ruling party has promoted corruption in the province.

“They have institutionalised corruption and widened its axis to neutralise potential opposition”, commented a retired banker with a rural background.

“The availability of more resources, owing to higher federal transfers post NFC, has enhanced the scope of corruption in a fraud prone political culture”, he argued.

“It is wrong to assume that Sindhis are satisfied with PPP’s performance. However, in absence of a viable political alternative they do not have an option”, a trader resident of Nawabshah commented.

The provincial leadership found Sindh placed low on the scale of human development, embarrassing after nine years of uninterrupted rule.

“Grappling with the issue of weaker social indicators in Sindh, the tax free proposed budget aims to deliver on the twin goals of inclusive development (by significantly increasing social sector allocations) and prudent economic management (by reaffirming commitment towards transparency and disclosure)”, said a senior member of the chief minister’s economic team.

The government claimed it closely scrutinised and contained current expenditure to free up resources for all time high development spending in the province.

“The government is trying hard to close the gap in the pace of progress with Punjab”, a planning and development department official involved in developing the budget strategy told Dawn.

In the budget speech, Murad Ali Shah disclosed that the current expenditure was Rs572.7 billion, up 14pc over the allocation in the preceding year that made up 68 per cent of the budget.

Development spending of Rs274bn in 2017-18 was projected to reflect the commitment of the ruling PPP to focus on the social uplift of the masses by improving delivery of social and infrastructure services.

In the budget the government has proposed increasing allocation for education to Rs202bn from Rs163bn in the concluding year. The grant for higher education has been kept at Rs5bn. For health, Rs100bn have been earmarked, up from Rs79.8bn in budget 2016-17.

More than the comparative performance of the ruling party, the provincial hierarchy blamed what it referred to as a ‘hostile media’ for the perception of misgovernance in Sindh.

The Sindh budget is better in the sense that it attempts to chop avoidable heads of expenditure and sets aside more for development with a promise to streamline release of funds for quick completion of projects.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, June 12th, 2017

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