Budget protests

Published June 24, 2021
The writer is a research analyst at the World Bank and a Fulbright alumna.
The writer is a research analyst at the World Bank and a Fulbright alumna.

THE events of this year’s budget will haunt us going forward. During a general debate on the federal budget last week, lawmakers, including ministers, hurled budget books at each other in the National Assembly. We had yet to recover from this shocking behaviour when another violent episode in Balochistan shook us. Opposition members of the Balochistan Assembly locked the assembly gates to prevent the presentation of the budget. An armoured police vehicle rammed into the gate to make way for the chief minister to enter the premises and present the budget. Four opposition members were injured. Shoes were hurled at Chief Minister Jam Kamal Alyani as he entered the building. These were scenes nobody wanted outside the assembly on budget day. Lawmakers are expected to be inside for this important session.

However, this time the opposition chose to protest outside as the past two budgets were enough to inform them of the government’s unfair approach towards their constituencies. Most of the development funds were directed to districts where the Balochistan Awami Party won in the 2018 elections. The development needs of the rest of the province were ignored. A repeat of this discriminatory exercise was feared when the opposition saw no signs of a pre-budget session happening. Apprehensions increased and the result was chaos at the assembly gate. The protests over the government’s ignoring the constituencies represented by the opposition in the development budget started five days before the session, and the main highways of the province were blocked on Thursday. Opposition members also alleged that schemes proposed by unelected individuals from their electoral areas were made part of the development plan.

These were scenes nobody wanted outside Balochistan’s legislature.

Another debate on social media was that the government was using the development budget to support death squad members by allocating funds to their specific areas, so that they could win seats in the provincial assembly in the next elections. This claim can’t be verified by looking at the budget document. People living in these areas can’t be left out on the pretext that death squads operate there. And a ruling party utilising funds to boost its chances of winning the next polls is nothing new and happens across Pakistan.

But the story gets dirtier in Balochistan because Shafiq Mengal, allegedly linked to a death squad in Khuzdar, contested the 2018 polls from the district for a National Assembly seat as an independent candidate. The opposition fears that BAP is allocating funds to Khuzdar to boost his chances in 2023. Mengal was reportedly seen in March at a dinner in Islamabad with three BAP senators, following which rumours circulated that he was being brought into mainstream Baloch politics.

Interestingly, a Twitter account purporting to be the official account of Shafiq Mengal tweeted against the opposition’s protest, calling them Indian agents. This shows the extent of the politicisation of the province’s development budget, and how it is used as a tool to reach the echelons of the provincial and national assemblies.

What is disappointing is that the opposition hasn’t presented any shadow budget or policy alternatives to the government’s budget figures. During the five-day protest no opposition member named specific development projects that had been rejected by the government. Debating outcomes of the projects proposed in development plans wasn’t on the opposition’s agenda either. The clash between the government and opposition seems to be over who gets what and an increase in the share of constituency funds.

When annual development plans are used for enhancing election chances and favouring political opponents of lawmakers through uplift funds, development outcomes and service delivery for the general population remain missing from the agenda. The sole objective is to secure as many funds as one can. This reduces the ef­­fectiveness of development expenditu­­re, and the de­­­­velo­­p­ment needs of the province rem­ain unmet. For exa­mple, Gwadar University, for which people campaigned online and offline, wasn’t made part of the development plan this year. It suggests that the government does not care about the demands and needs of Gwadar’s youth.

By looking at the budget’s size and the number of schemes planned, one can tell it wasn’t made to fulfil the development needs of the province but to satisfy ministers and assembly members. The communication and education schemes give an idea of this. The roads proposed are only a few kilometres long and not enough for the upgradation of Balochistan’s communication infrastructure. The same goes for education as most of the schools in the plan have few classrooms and this will hardly help improve educational outcomes. As long as the development budget remains a ground for political and personal gains, public money will not be spent on the welfare and well-being of society.

The writer is a research analyst at the World Bank and a Fulbright alumna.

Twitter: @MerryBaloch

Published in Dawn, June 24th, 2021

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