Hold on tight

Published September 26, 2022
The writer is a former civil servant.
The writer is a former civil servant.

AS one with vivid memories of Pakistan of the 1960s, one is nervous about today’s Pakistan. While ‘development and progress’ have been our leaders’ buzzwords, their definition and implementation have been driven by optics devoid of substance.

The various stages and strategies of our development have led to international-quality motorways, a prolific auto industry, a booming real estate (which is gobbling up farmland) and an improved telecom system driven by user-friendly technology and nothing else. But we’ve neglected education, destroying our government schools and shifting quality education to the pricier private sector. The regulators have duped the common people into believing that their children were getting MBA and MCom degrees when such graduates were not aware of even the basics of their ‘specialisation’. Educational neglect is unending because the gestation period for results is long and no political leader has the time.

The health sector may have seen marginal improvement, but again, initiatives are for immediate gain and not to fix the basic health bureaucracy. An example is the latest health card scheme. It does give relief to the poor but eases the pressure on the government to fix the basic health machinery. Moreover, the funds come from the development, instead of the operational, budget.

Local government, the building block of good governance, continues to be ignored because it does not suit the clout of politicians higher in the pecking order.

In our case, the past is another country.

Gone are the days when one could see beldars watering and repairing canals and distributaries on a daily basis while you drove over unpaved canal banks. The railways, once the backbone of communication and a pleasure to use, has been wrecked by prioritising motorway communication. The civil bureaucracy, the engine of all governance, has been demolished by internal bickering brought on by undue reforms and insecure politicians infringing on the rights of civil servants.

All institutions have weakened and some made redundant. One recalls the lost glory of PIA, Wapda, SNGPL, EPB (the present TDAP), TCP, NSC (shipping), and of the chief secretary, IG, establishment secretary, etc. Now, only officers and executives not bothered about sullying their reputation seek to head these organisations.

On the financial side, in the cautious 1960s, you needed an Open General Licence to import anything. The principle was that the government issued a receipt for proof of the export amount (say, $100) and you could sell this paper in the market to an importer who could then import something worth $100.This was an exercise in living within your means and that is why the dollar was Rs4.76 then.

Up to the 1990s, government development funds were very difficult to get. Building a rural road or repairing a main highway would take years of lobbying. Even then, the allocation was only sufficient for a frugal project. A crore-a-kilometre road was considered a super road. Current motorways cost Rs30 to Rs40 crore a kilometre. It was around that time that we started pretending to be a successful country and stopped living within our means, ending up with fiscal deficits of unheard and unsustainable proportions.

Pretending to be a modern developing country, we threw out the import substitution strategy and adopted export-led growth. The perceived benefits of a liberal import policy considered essential for increasing exports and being compliant with World Trade Organisation (WTO) principles has taken us to a stage where our exports amount to $32 billion and imports $80bn. The unintended benefit of remittances by labour and professionals who went abroad without the state’s help saved us from complete collapse. But our extravagance and penchant for goodies even First World residents can’t afford has neutralised the benefit of these remittances.

We seem so overawed by multilateral bodies like the WTO that the government recently reversed its ban on imports of luxury items to save us from default, because of the reported pressure of the WTO. It’s difficult to digest.

In the 1960s, there were no glitzy DHAs, no SUVS, no Porsches and Audis, no restaurants with imported steaks for Rs19,000 a piece, no destination weddings; but then, one did not get butterflies in the stomach for fear of national bankruptcy. There was no feeling of inferiority vis-à-vis Indians and now Bangladeshis. There was no remorse at having advised your children to make a life in their own country rather than pursue their dreams abroad.

Whom should one blame? Our politicians, bureaucracy, businessmen, the army whose think tanks and individuals’ ambitions have not been able to steady the ship through political engineering? Their engineering skills have worsened matters.

With no easy answers, this may be the time to hold on to your seats like one does while flying in turbulent weather and hope you emerge in one piece to enjoy a smoother flight later.

The writer is a former civil servant.

tasneem.m.noorani@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, September 26th, 2022

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