THE Economic Survey this year, like many previous ones, was little more than an opportunity for the current rulers to roll out their signature achievements and press for the continuity of policies in the next government.

Presented earlier than usual, because of the looming deadline imposed by the election schedule, it could present only a sketchy portrait of the economy in the ongoing fiscal year, with much of the data in it spanning a six-month period.

Still, the government representatives, four ministers seated side by side, found ample opportunity to talk of their achievements and virtually taunt their critics with their track record.

The government ended load-shedding, claimed Minister for Planning Ahsan Iqbal as he began the presentation, arguing that the power crisis had been pushing Pakistan towards “a civil war” at the time it took the reins. The government built roads to connect remote areas, brought investment, revived growth … and so on.

Economic Survey 2017-18: ‘We put Pakistan back to work,’ declares govt as final survey unveiled

Financial Adviser Miftah Ismail then argued that growth had been revived even though the external sector presented challenges. But here too there was no ground for serious concern, he asserted, since due to exchange rate depreciations, the current account deficit was coming down.

So if all is fine as they are telling us, why are the alarm bells sounding with growing urgency as the government’s five-year track record unfolds? Today the State Bank, the IMF, the World Bank and the ADB are all united in their warning that the increasing external deficits pose a real threat to the growth rates being touted by the government, and these warnings have continued even after the depreciations, indicating that more might yet be required to control the situation.

What kind of growth is this, one is tempted to ask, that depletes our reserves and creates threats to its own sustainability.

It would have been a lot easier to find comfort in the numbers presented in the Survey and underlined by the ministers during their news conference, had we not heard all this talk before. But we have been here in the past, in the mid-2000s, when exactly the same narrative was rolled out, albeit with growth rates and transformations in the economy that were far more robust than what we are seeing these days, despite the CPEC investments. Those years ended badly, and the memory lingers to this day.

Of course, history need not repeat itself. One is left wishing that the track record presented by the government team at the unveiling of the Economic Survey had more than just raw numbers behind it. With little change on the structural side, whether in the power sector or in productivity or in public-sector enterprises, we can only witness the spectacle of growth with unease.

Published in Dawn, April 27th, 2018

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