I FEEL guilty when standing under a hot shower in the morning because the gas which is heating the water, even though paid for by me, is causing a 20 per cent loss to the gas company due to UFG (unaccounted for gas). Additionally, each shower depletes the country’s foreign exchange reserves because there is not enough local gas left.
I feel guilty sleeping in an air-conditioned room, even though I pay my bills, because each night’s comfortable sleep is adding to my country’s circular debt which has reached Rs2.5 trillion, or 40pc of our total tax collection.
I feel guilty driving at 129 kilometres an hour (9 km above the speed limit but within the tolerance threshold of the Motorway Police) on our highways in my reasonably powerful, air-conditioned car, enjoying the beauty of the landscape and crops, grown by mostly struggling farmers, from tinted windows. That is because I know this infrastructural luxury, though having made life very easy for the elite, is not something the country can afford on borrowed money. Hardly any other country with a modest per capita income of $1,798 can boast of an extensive and expensive road infrastructure like ours.
I feel guilty at buying imported cooking oil for my kitchen when I know that my country has to spend $4 billion every year on it, while we are made to rub our noses in the dirt by the IMF for a paltry $1.2bn. I wonder why, being an agricultural country, we cannot grow more oil-producing crops, though we do grow bananas, strawberries, etc — products we did not grow traditionally before independence. Is it a mafia that does not allow it to happen?
Why did we not get a leader who focused on the right priorities?
I feel guilty when I drive into my house, part of a new real estate development project with broad roads, palm trees, embedded electric wires, parks and shopping malls — in short as good as any in the world — when I know my comfort and style is gobbling up precious agricultural and orchard land and encouraging everyone and his uncle to speculate in plots, rather than putting money in alternative businesses such as manufacturing. Investing in the latter would have generated employment and reduced our dependence on the dollar.
I feel guilty driving my Japanese car, knowing fully well that even through there are pretensions of it being locally made, more than 70pc of its components are imported, on which the country spends $2.9bn every year. I wonder why it has not been possible in the 76 years of our existence to make our own car. Simply because we need brand new models every few years and like international specifications or, again, is it an interest group that does not let it happen?
I feel disgusted when I see the opulent offices of senior civil and military officers of a poor country. All of what I have written here shows I feel guilty that I have misguided the next generation (my children) to have faith in the future of this country and not emigrate. To work honestly and work hard so that this country could become great.
I wonder why we did not get a leader in our 76 years who told us not to consume natural gas at the speed we did and made policies to ensure that the depleting gas fields were replaced by new discoveries, by making gas and oil prospecting attractive for the investor.
I wonder why we did not get a leader who stopped power theft, even if his actions were politically unpopular; who made sure that our transmission capacity would be added simultaneously to production capacity even though perhaps kickbacks are less attractive in transmission projects; who carried out a proper cost-benefit analysis before investing heavily in new plants, which became white elephants because of the wrong location or the wrong choice of fuel.
I wonder why we did not get a leader who prioritised education and health and told us that we will build motorways when our educated and healthy workforce earns enough to pay for it rather than constructing them on borrowed money.
I have similar regrets for us having become used to living beyond our means as individuals and as a nation. I wish I was living in my ‘purana’ Pakistan where I was comfortable heating my bathwater in a drum, sweating it out under a fan, driving my beat-up car on a single road without a divider, eating food cooked in local mustard oil and visiting senior officers, both military and civil in Spartan offices.
At least I would not be getting butterflies in my stomach at the collapsing economy and consequent social upheaval. At least I would not be humiliated seeing Bangladesh and India forging way ahead of us. At least I would not be scared of having to trade my nuclear deterrence for money to repay my loans.
I would be a happier man sleeping in a hot sweaty room but being able to hold my head high the next morning.
The writer is a former commerce secretary and member of the PTI advisory committee.
Published in Dawn, December 10th, 2022