What happened outside the Balochistan Assembly on the budget day is but another reminder of how politicised ‘development’ in this country has become over time. It also is reflective of the factors that determine the spending preferences of a sitting government — federal or provincial — at the expense needs of people and growing regional inequalities.
It is not the first time that a sitting government in the Centre or one province or the other chose to totally ignore the ‘development schemes’ suggested by the opposition lawmakers for their respective constituencies. But it is the first occasion that the frustrated opposition legislators decided to bring their protest outside the assembly hall and onto the streets.
The opposition members of the provincial assembly had been camping outside the assembly to force the Jam Kamal Alyani government to insert the small, public works schemes they had proposed for their constituents in Budget 2021-22. A day before their supporters had blocked different highways passing through cities, warning the government that they would do anything to block the announcement of the budget.
When the threat didn’t work, the angry opposition lawmakers and their supporters locked the assembly gates from inside hours before the budget speech. The police were forced to break open a back gate using the armoured vehicle to let in the treasury members inside the assembly building, and use batons and fire teargas to disperse the protestors. The violent protest delayed the budget speech for a couple of hours but could not impress the coalition administration led by the Balochistan Awami Party to entertain their demands.
A large number of schemes are left incomplete midway or are duplicated to swindle the taxpayers with governments held hostage by their members looking the other way
Although provincial finance minister Zahoor Ahmed Buledi in his budget speech contended that the coalition government has presented a ‘balanced budget’ focused on the development of the entire province despite its financial troubles and resource constraints, the growing regional inequalities and rising poverty belie that claim. Battered by years of Baloch insurgency, religious militancy, underinvestment, and adverse impacts of climate change, a large portion of its population still don’t have access to basic public services despite claims to the contrary by successive administrations.
The growing development throw-forward in the province that constitutes 45 per cent of the country’s total landmass indicates how the scanty financial resources available for the uplift of the province have either been squandered or stolen by politicians, bureaucrats and contractors. A large number of schemes are left incomplete midway or are duplicated to swindle the taxpayers with governments held hostage by their members looking the other way. Thus, the rising political discontent and lawlessness in the province are not surprising. Even though important public financial management reforms have been executed in recent years under the present dispensation, the process involving the selection of schemes and allocation of funds for them remain opaque — dependent more on the political choices of the rulers rather than based on the needs of people.
That said, the next year’s spending plan of the provincial government is quite in line with the new, expansionary fiscal strategy adopted by its main ally — Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf — in the Centre and the provinces ruled by it. Its next Rs584.1bn budget sets aside Rs172.5bn, up by around 62pc from the original estimates of Rs106.1bn for the current year, for development stimulus to push economic growth. This is despite the fact that the government was forced to drastically revise downward the original allocations to Rs72.4bn this year because of resource constraints and the coronavirus pandemic.
The total outlay for the provincial uplift programme rises to Rs237.2bn if the foreign project assistance of Rs16.7bn and allocations of Rs48bn for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and other federal projects in Balochistan are also taken into account. With the development programme for the next fiscal also facing a resource shortfall — or deficit — of Rs84.7bn, the size of the stimulus will likely be slashed towards the end of the year as it is unlikely to fill this gap through savings in the current revenue expenditure.
Why always exaggerate development spending at the beginning of the year and slash it as the year closes? A senior Balochistan government officer had told me a few years back that ‘the higher allocation for the uplift projects were reflective of the needs for more resources from the federation since its own underdeveloped economy is unable to produce enough revenues to meet the huge developmental challenges it faces’.
But the strategy has not worked. It will have to wait for the National Finance Commission to begin deliberations for a new award to put forward its case for additional money. In the meantime, the government should take broader actions for efficient utilisation of whatever money it has for its uplift projects, reduce its massive developmental throw-forward, encourage need-based schemes for ameliorating the quality of the public service delivery instead of doling out funds for pleasing its lawmakers, and plug loopholes for corruption and embezzlement. —NJ
Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, June 21st, 2021