No more freebies

Published April 1, 2023

PERHAPS amongst the major reasons Pakistan is fighting to maintain financial solvency today is that its rapacious elite have, for decades, lived like royalty while the hapless masses slaved away. Moreover, whenever noises are made about austerity, it is the poor and the overstretched middle classes that are told to bear the brunt ‘in the national interest’, while the elite continue to live it up. This hypocrisy must end. One small step in the right direction is the Public Accounts Committee’s recent call to do away with free electricity for officers from grades 16 to 22. This will reportedly save the state Rs9bn a year. As the PAC chairman rightly said, the free electricity facility “should be discontinued for judges and generals alike”. The bottom line is that whether it is electricity, fuel or other utilities and services, all citizens, including our civilian and military bureaucracies, must pay for what they consume. The only exception where subsidies can be considered is for the poorest of the poor — those who are battling to put food on the table. For everyone else, the freeloading must end if we are to truly break the ‘begging bowl’, and live as a self-respecting state.

But old habits die hard. The elite in Pakistan are used to living lives of luxury subsidised by the taxpayer. For example, as pointed out in a UNDP report, the total privileges enjoyed by “Pakistan’s most powerful groups” came to a whopping Rs2,660bn in 2017-18. That is no mean amount. Amongst the beneficiaries of this largesse, the report says, are feudals, the corporate class, the rich, state-owned enterprises and the military. It is these sectors, which have political and economic power in Pakistan, that need to shed their taste for luxury provided by the taxpayer. Efforts have been made to trim the fat. For example, the prime minister launched an austerity drive in February; yet, as the monitoring committee noted some weeks after, cabinet members and senior bureaucrats had not given up their use of expensive, fuel-guzzling cars. If the state is serious about austerity, real change needs to start at the top, with politicians, the military and the bureaucracy leading the way. The mantra should be simple: live within your means, and shed this addiction to luxury financed by foreign loans and the common man’s toil.

Published in Dawn, April 1st, 2023

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