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No interest in budget

June 28, 2012


LACK of interest in a thorough discussion on the national budget, on the way resources are apportioned to meet the various demands (unfortunately, not needs) and the way the allocations are actually utilised, is one of the major dimensions of political delinquency in Pakistan that needs to be earnestly addressed.

We had no debate worth the name in parliament on the federal budget for 2012-13. True, many speeches were made in the National Assembly, and the Senate suggested a number of changes in the budget proposals — perhaps more numerous than before — but these were largely confined to arguments for changes in the size of allocation of resources to different heads of expenditure.

This meant as little as the budget-making exercise, which mainly consists of adding the effect of increase in employees’ wages to the previous year’s allocation.

References might have been made in passing to the need for changes in the system of economic management but one looked in vain for arguments for specific shifts in planning and resource utilisation without which the country’s chronic ills cannot be cured.

If in the circumstances Pakistan faces, there is no debate on land reform, methods to raise labour’s productivity, means to alleviate the plight of the rural poor or plans to arrest the erosion of natural resources (especially water and fuel), it means avoidance of serious discussion, a disinclination to look for out-of-the-box answers.

The main opposition party must accept their part in depriving the people of the benefit of a fulsome debate on the budget. Their boycott of the budget session, efforts to disrupt proceedings and tearing up of budget documents are accepted as routine methods to harass the treasury benches and they have every right to demand the ouster of the government.

But all this could be done within the course of a debate on the situation in the country. They could dwell on flaws in the official brief, discuss the price of bad governance paid by the people and conclude each speech on a call upon the government to quit.

Unfortunately, the important role budget debates used to play in our parliamentary life seems to have suffered a huge decline. It is not impossible to recall the days when the budget session was the most important event in the parliamentary calendar not merely because the annual statement of revenue and expenditure was adopted but also, and perhaps more importantly, because members of parliament could bring any aspect of life in the country under discussion.

Every matter that concerned the people was to the point and MPs were generally not subject to time constraints. These debates enriched the parliamentary system, brought the people closer to parliament and offered bright and diligent lawmakers opportunities to establish themselves on the strength of their eloquence or their capacity to voice people’s concerns.

One of the unwelcome consequences of the decline in the importance of the budget sessions is the virtual extinction of the practice of examining the expenditure statements of the outgoing year. A debate on these statements should be a significant feature of budget scrutiny.

This is especially true of the supplementary budget because it is absolutely necessary to ascertain how expenditure in excess of allocation can be justified. These days the demands for supplementary grants are approved in a few minutes and no questions are asked about the government’s extravagance or incompetence.

It was to meet the demand for an adequate discussion on the preceding year’s expenditures that the idea of holding parliamentary sessions well in advance of the presentation of a new year’s budget was mooted. And perhaps a promise to this effect was made not long ago. The idea is worth accepting in future so that parliament, and through it the people, can see how their money has been spent.

For widening the area of debate the possibility of issuing the Economic Survey a week or 10 days before the presentation of the new year’s budget needs to be explored.

However, it is not only parliamentarians who have curtailed their interest in budget debates, the people too are showing progressively decreasing interest in budgets. The principal reason behind this is that except for salaried employees and pensioners, in both the public and private sectors, who expect a raise in their take-home packets, citizens are offered little direct benefit.

Gone are the days when ordinary people waited for the budget to see whether the cost of the postcard, the telephone call, kerosene oil and electricity was going to be reduced. All these matters have passed into the hands of a variety of more callous and less accountable tyrants.

Besides, the people have come to believe that budget-making has been reduced to a formality the rulers themselves do not take seriously. They have learnt that revenues are not always expended for the purpose they are allocated for, that all the funds allocated for education and health are not spent on the population outside the privileged classes/communities and that weak monitoring and auditing procedures allow the administration to play with national resources like the wadera next door.

Finally, the ordinary people, most of them poor by any definition, lose respect for the magicians-with-statistics when they are told that a substantial part of the resources consumed not only by roads, highways and bridges, education, agriculture, subsidies but also by justice administration and law and order is pro-poor expenditure (the latest Economic Survey).

The presumption seems to be that a part of the funds allocated for the administration of justice goes to poor clerks, qasids and the mace-bearers who walk ahead of judges and stand behind their seats. One wonders how defence services could be excluded from this category because apart from some indigent generals, air marshals and admirals there are soldiers, batmen, orderlies, cooks and pesh imams who may be classed as poor. It is another matter that the huge pro-poor expenditure is no more than about seven per cent of the GDP.

Tailpiece: These are the days of heresy and conspiracy. Someone has committed the heresy of reproducing the remarks of Mr Markandey Katju, a former judge of India’s Supreme Court, on our apex court’s verdict in the Gilani case. Mr Katju first expressed his views on Facebook and then in the Hindu of Chennai. He thinks the SC has no right to sack a prime minister or overrule the constitutional immunity given to the president and has the temerity to say that “it has clearly gone overboard and flouted all canons of constitutional jurisprudence”.

The patriotic black coats must immediately demand or hold an inquiry as to who are the elements behind this conspiracy to defame Pakistan and its judiciary. The Foreign Office may consider sending a démarche to the Americans and tell them that this is the result of their nuclear deal with India.