PUNJAB is where the battle for power will be fought in 2023. Punjab is also where PTI parliamentarians are perhaps most discontented with the ‘austere’ policies of their government and looking towards their leadership to give them something to sell to their constituents burdened by inflation, eroding incomes, job losses and development infrastructure gaps. PTI allies in the province are also not happy with the way the government has treated them. It is, therefore, natural for the ruling party to focus on Punjab in the run-up to the elections and execute public works schemes that are important for voters and can improve its candidates’ prospects. The Punjab budget 2021-22 is a major policy step in that direction. Apart from announcing a three-year district development package of Rs360bn to engage its legislators and complete schemes proposed by them, the government has enhanced development funds by more than 66pc to stimulate growth in line with federal strategy. Among other major initiatives, it seeks to launch the Universal Health Insurance project to cover the entire province by the end of 2021 and speed up investment in social and economic infrastructure. Additionally, it has decided to continue hefty tax concessions to protect businesses and provide relief to urban middle-class households during Covid-19.
With just two years left to create a positive impression, the Buzdar dispensation, which has earned flak for what its critics refer to as incompetence, is all set to go full throttle on its planned spending spree from the start of the new fiscal. Political motivation notwithstanding, the province is in dire need of public investment to repair deteriorating infrastructure, as well as qualitative and quantitative improvement in public service delivery. The infrastructure gap has expanded and service delivery depreciated since the PTI’s ascent to power, a major reason why the government hasn’t succeeded in diminishing popular political support for the PML-N, especially in the central and northern districts of Punjab. Indeed, the incumbent administration has made a few ‘soft interventions’ over time to shift investment focus to human development by spending more money on public health and education, and digitisation of the provincial economy in contrast to its predecessor’s penchant for large infrastructure schemes. But the experience of the last few years shows that ‘wholesome’ improvement in human development indicators is not possible without building the economic infrastructure to create jobs and alleviate poverty. Political compulsions seem to have taught the rulers of Punjab the same — albeit belatedly.
Published in Dawn, June 16th, 2021