Here come the absurdities

Updated 03 Jan 2019


The writer is a member of staff.
The writer is a member of staff.

LITTLE by little the absurdities are piling up. It is becoming increasingly evident that this government has no capacity to tackle the subtle art of running things. Examples are in abundant supply, but just consider one recent episode.

In his address to the nation back in September, Imran Khan talked at length about the growing water deficit in the country, gave some figures to highlight the challenge, and said that, in his opinion, this is issue number one for Pakistan. “All other issues in one place, this one in another”, he said in Urdu, meaning that water was so serious a concern that everything else paled in comparison.

Also read: A water policy for a Naya Pakistan

That was the speech in which he threw his weight behind the dam fund, and said that this is how he intends to address the problem: by helping generate donations from overseas Pakistanis, and eventually getting around to the task of building the Mohmand and Diamer Bhasha dams.

Till today, the dam fund has collected Rs9 billion, of which Rs7.82bn have come from within Pakistan. This means that of the total collection, overseas contributions have been less than one-tenth. So much for overseas Pakistanis coming forward in droves to help fund infrastructure in their homeland on an appeal from the prime minister!

Explore: Not every diaspora Pakistani can donate $1,000. But even if Diamer-Bhasha reaches its funding goal, then what?

Almost exactly a month after that address to the nation, he appointed none other than Faisal Vawda as minister for water resources, who refused to answer a question about the potential conflict of interest in awarding a contract to build Mohmand dam (cost: Rs300bn) to a company owned by Razzak Dawood, special adviser on commerce.

Are we now moving back to an era of high subsidies in order to promote growth?

The fact that questions are being raised about this award should hardly be a surprise. In another speech more recently, Imran Khan spoke at length about his vision of “the state of Medina” as his example. He gave the example of the first caliph, and said that he liquidated all of his business interests before coming to power, so there should not be any conflict of interest during the time of his rule. He said this is how it’s going to be in naya Pakistan too, where those in power will avoid all conflicts of interest.

Days later came the announcement of the Mohmand dam award going to a company owned by a member of the prime minister’s cabinet. Are people not supposed to say anything? Does the leadership of naya Pakistan seriously think that they should not be asked any questions when their words are contradicted by their deeds?

Find out: Nightmare scenarios

Let me ask another simple question in this context. If water is really the single-most important issue facing the country as the prime minister himself said in his address to the nation, to the point where the chief justice of the Supreme Court has to personally get involved in collecting donations for dams, then how does the appointment of Faisal Vawda as water minister make any sense?

Would anyone from the leadership of naya Pakistan care to list for us the water-related credentials that Mr Vawda brings to his position?

The question assumes that merit has a place in naya Pakistan, and that important appointments will go to the best person for the job. Given that water has been identified by the prime minister himself as an existential issue for Pakistan, may we know on what grounds Mr Vawda becomes the best person for the job of looking after Pakistan’s water resources?

Not just in appointments (and let us understand that Mr Vawda’s appointment is not the only one that inspires a few questions), but also in the matter of policy direction, the evidence is now mounting that the government of Imran Khan is adrift, being driven by necessity, encircled by vested interests, and perhaps substantially oblivious to the growing challenges on the policy front.

Take a look: As industry falters, Pakistan’s lack of policy comes to light

Take its repeated promise to boost exports. We are now being told, by none other than the youthful minister of state for revenue, that the gas price subsidy of Rs25bn is part of their plan to promote exports, and that another plan is in the making to expedite sales tax refunds for exporters. He also promised that power tariffs for exporters will be reduced to Rs7.50 per unit, something that is not possible without extensive government subsidies.

Given the massive shortfall in revenue collection, and the rapid pace of government borrowing from the State Bank, may we know what impact such a strategy will have on the fiscal framework? Are we now moving back to an era of high subsidies in order to promote growth?

Consider also that the government is promising export-led growth, import substitution for domestic manufacturers, and a boost in foreign investment — all at the same time. What sort of growth model are we talking about here? Or is the government telling all segments of the business community what they want to hear in a bid to keep them satisfied and motivated?

The promises are made in earnest — and for the record, the minister of state for revenue is a capable individual, in my opinion — but given the realities on the revenue and expenditure side, it is highly unlikely that the government will be able to afford such a strategy for very long. The time is not far now when the reality of the adjustment kicks in. It can be delayed for a few more months, perhaps, with a billion or two from ‘friendly countries’, but eventually it will come.

This sense of drift needs to end. Imran Khan really needs to take more careful stock of the people he is putting in important places, and ask whether he has chosen the best person for the job, or the best job for the person.

The writer is a member of staff.

Twitter: @khurramhusain

Published in Dawn, January 3rd, 2019