WHEN you hear someone say so and so is numberi (mischievous), know that the slang is based on the legal, administrative system left behind by the Brits. The ‘number’ part of it is a reference to the articles of the Criminal Procedure Code — 420 pertains to cheating and fraud; dus (10) numberi refers to history-sheeters whose records are archived. From a different perspective, ‘numberdar’ and its variants ‘lumbardar’ in Punjabi and ‘mujumdar’ in Bengali are titles derived from the revenue collection mechanism for the rural areas.
In everyday usage, ‘numberi’ is an all-encompassing term that leaves it to the listener to ascribe the appropriate mischief in keeping with the behaviour and reputation of the entity in question. In keeping with its obsession with numbers, the PTI can also claim the sobriquet.
Consider the stupendous sum of $200 billion supposedly stashed away in foreign bank accounts during the PPP and PML-N regimes. Throughout the election campaign leading up to the 2018 polls, this was the rallying call at every PTI event. The crowd was egged on by speaker after speaker, delivering the refrain ‘how much’ and a thunderous response of ‘200 billion’ would reverberate.
Now comes the fraud part: two years down the road, with not even a single dollar in sight despite many millions wasted on this wild goose chase, no one in government wants to fess up that it was just electioneering hoopla. Cornered during a TV interview, Federal Minister for Planning, Asad Umar, who previously held the portfolio for finance, passed the buck to the prime minister’s adviser on accountability for coming up with the number.
The party’s obsession with numbers started with ’35 punctures’.
The PTI’s obsession with numbers started with a seemingly small, twin-digit figure. Remember the ’35 punctures’?’ A reference to yet another supposed wrongdoing — the manipulation of election results in as many constituencies during the 2013 general elections, that according to the PTI enabled the PML-N to form the government at its expense. This was the mainstay of the PTI’s marathon sit-in at D-Chowk in front of parliament, calling for then prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s ouster. It set the dominoes in motion though in the end the premier was disqualified by the Supreme Court for not showing a work permit from a Gulf state in his nomination papers. It took years of grilling by the media to finally get a confession out of the PTI leadership including Prime Minister Khan and Jahangir Tareen that it was all a political ploy.
The numbers keep fluctuating but have always been around the PTI. The tree plantation campaign, an extremely laudable intention, started with a ‘billion-tree tsunami’ during the first PTI government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Since then, the numbers of trees have grown faster in the slogans than on the ground.
The mother of all numbers so far, is the trillion-plus-rupee programme announced by Prime Minister Khan for the uplift of Karachi during his recent visit to the metropolis. Different people are asking different questions about the ‘package’. Some are asking how much is a trillion? Others want to know how many zeroes are there in it? Since the PTI is big on numbers, rest assured that it knows its zeroes. Yet others want to know where will the trillion-plus rupees come from? The verbal battles that have broken out between the federal and Sindh governments regarding who foots how much of the bill in the said programme is quite entertaining. In truth, it all boils down to who will ask for how much loan from the usual lenders as the governments themselves have empty coffers.
If you convert the package amount into dollars, it comes to around $6.6 billion at the current exchange rate. The World Bank lends close to a billion dollars in IDA, the cheapest loan category, to Pakistan every year, but that is for the entire country and ongoing projects need to be completed. The Covid-19 slowdown and the current Saudi sulk means that the balance of payments is not likely to improve, and the more expensive International Bank for Reconstruction and Development loans will not be viable, much to the chagrin of the World Bank. Considering the absolute lack of capacity and synergy evinced among all the stakeholders jostling for space in Karachi during the recent rains, lack of funding may not be too bad an outcome. But what about the promises to uplift Karachi? Well, someone has done a number on it.
Tailpiece: In the US, the term ‘420’ pertains to anything to do with marijuana. It started as a counterculture in the ’70s among California students who would smoke cannabis at 4:20pm every day. It is now a countrywide event where tens of thousands of potheads gather on April 20 (4/20) annually. Our bhang (hemp) export initiative is aimed at economic self-reliance. In Sindhi and Seraiki, it is said: “penhji ghot te nasha theeway” (want to get high? grind your own)
The writer is a poet and analyst.
Published in Dawn, September 20th, 2020