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Mugged by reality

Updated September 15, 2018

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IMRAN Khan has asked for a three-month honeymoon period for his new government. Fair enough, although I don’t remember him giving this respite to any of the leaders he has opposed.

If we look into the future to catch a glimpse of his vision, what do we see? A billion trees, lots of dams, 10 million newly created jobs, and a corruption-free country. Truly a New Pakistan. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not being sarcastic as there’s nothing I’d like better than a green, eco-friendly Pakistan that creates a huge number of jobs for young people.

But we all dream of having a sports car, a yacht and an apartment in London. However, few of us have the means to pay for our fantasies. So let me give our new prime minister a quick update on the money required to turn his vision into reality, just in case his finance minister has overlooked this basic duty.

Without wishing to rain on the PTI parade, here are the facts: the budget announced last May by Miftah Ismail, the ex-finance minister, had a total projected expenditure of Rs5,932 billion for the current fiscal year. Out of this, Rs1,100bn goes to defence, an increase of 10 per cent over the last year. Twice this amount (Rs2,200bn) has been allocated to debt servicing. And since most of our debts are dollar-denominated, we’ll probably spend a lot more.

Imran Khan is in good company where vision is concerned.

This leaves just Rs 2,632bn for meeting all other expenses, including the share provinces get from the federal exchequer, our administrative costs, subsidies to state enterprises running in the red, and federally run institutions and services across the country. NAB, for instance, has an allocation of Rs2.6bn, while Rs4.3bn has been set aside for presidential and prime ministerial trips abroad. Oh yes, Rs217 million was wasted on the 21-day Faizabad sit-in staged by the Tehreek-i-Labbaik, in case anyone is curious.

Given these claims on budgetary resources, we need hardly be surprised that our Public Services Development Programme has an allocation of just Rs25bn. Hard to build many dams with these meagre resources. Diamer-Bhasha, the much-hyped dam planned for construction in Gilgit-Baltistan, was estimated to cost Rs1,450bn back in 2010. Now, with the rise in the value of the US greenback, this figure could go up significantly.

Towards this cost, the army has made a contribution of a billion, while the chief justice has added a further million. Another half billion has reportedly been collected from individuals. All this is good news, but we are still short by almost the entire amount needed.

As for loans from multinational agencies, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank pulled out on the grounds that the project was planned on disputed territory, and we would need an NOC from India before they could proceed with financing. Good luck with that. And due to the tough conditions attached to possible Chinese financing under CPEC, we are still looking for the funds to start building.

The chief justice has offered to pitch his tent at the project site to guard the equipment after his retirement. But he needn’t be in a hurry as it’ll be a long time before there’s anything there to guard. However, his offer to micro-manage the project during his tenure must serve as an example to top courts around the world that are still stuck in the boring task of overseeing the administration of justice.

Over the years, Imran Khan has railed against previous leaders who have taken loans from bilateral and multilateral sources, pushing our external debt to around $95bn. But while we can argue about the viability of the development projects thus financed, the fact is that without this injection of funds, there would have been little development from our own resources. So no major dams, roads or airports.

The prime minister’s suggestion that we sell off state land to service our debts is puzzling as the figure he gives for the value of these assets is a paltry Rs 300bn. Perhaps he is unaware that much of this land is under illegal occupation by homeless people. Another proposal before this government is to ban the import of cars and cheese for a year to save $3bn. I had no idea we had developed such a taste for Brie and Camembert. But this is really scraping the bottom of the barrel.

However, Imran Khan is in good company where vision is concerned. In the 1990s, when Nawaz Sharif decided to build motorways across the country, he was reminded of our budgetary constraints by a senior official. The ex-prime minister retorted: “Was Sher Shah Suri deterred by a lack of funds?”

Ah, but the Afghan warlord who built the original Grand Trunk Road just looted gold from the hapless locals to finance his ambitious projects.

irfan.husain@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, September 15th, 2018