THE government appears to have managed to salvage a sliver of its dignity by finally securing cabinet approval for the “bold” energy conservation plan from last June that it recently recycled. Otherwise, the plan had seemed consigned for the dustbin for the second time in six months, with the provinces not even bothering to consider it seriously till this Tuesday.
Even now, Punjab has pooh-poohed Islamabad’s prescriptions and refused to cooperate, while KP has excused itself by saying it needs more time to consider. Their refusal to implement the PDM’s austerity plan is likely more political than practical, considering that the measures are not even as bold or ‘difficult’ as the government would have us believe. Though they deserve a solid D for intent, they seem unlikely to do much good for the overall health of the general economy. They are homoeopathic remedies for a country in the throes of a potentially terminal disease.
We cannot continue to be wasteful when we are out of funds and borrowing desperately just to keep afloat. However, we cannot also salvage the drowning economy by shuttering businesses early and encouraging the adoption of energy-efficient fans, lights and motorbikes alone. These measures are baby steps; the government needs to do much more.
If the government can actually implement the cabinet-endorsed measures — and that remains a big ‘if’ — a good next step might be to cut the size of the bloated government and to counsel the prime minister against compulsively announcing new development projects, bonuses and special allowances that further deplete the national kitty.
Cutting other state expenditures — such as funds used to maintain golf courses, other recreational activities and similar privileges for our power elite — may also be well-received by a public struggling to put roti on their table. Come to think of it, this would be the best time for the government to launch an overall restructuring of both state and government to remove the leeches that have been draining the system dry.
It is unlikely that this will happen, however, as ‘difficult measures’ seem to be great only for as long as the powerful and their enablers don’t have to bear them. That is why, for example, it is fine for the state that the salaried class is paying higher income taxes this year amidst crippling inflation, but God forbid if the government tries to raise revenue by taxing retailers, shopkeepers and property dealers or makes any effort to document (and subsequently tax) the grey economy.
This sorry duplicity has now become so ingrained and normalised in our national discourse that ‘preservation of political capital’ is now considered enough of an excuse for opinion-makers to nod, shrug and write off the finance minister’s near-criminal unwillingness to take the actions necessary to convince the IMF to continue extending us a desperately needed lifeline. The circus goes on.
Published in Dawn, January 5th, 2023