The federal government does not actually lie when it announces its budget for any given fiscal year, but it goes out of its way to make sure that anyone looking has a hard time finding the truth.
Anyone who has tried going through a budget document knows that it is virtually a nightmare to try to find the right numbers. It is not as though the numbers are not there. If you look hard enough, you will even be able to find the hidden portion of the military budget. But the finance ministry makes sure to place the numbers in as inconvenient a format as possible, making it a severely painful process to find out exactly what the government is spending on and where it plans to collect its revenues.
For instance, if anybody wants to find out how much the government spent last year on bailing out state-owned companies, there is no single place where one can look. There is the “grants section” where one finds at least one entry that looks suspiciously like a bailout to Pakistan Railways for about Rs25 billion in fiscal year 2012. But what about the rest?
To find the bailout given by the government to Pakistan International Airlines, one has to go to the “loans and investments” chapter and look under “current investments”. Most of the others are not mentioned by name in the relatively manageable 50-page “Budget in Brief” document. They are simply lumped under innocuous-sounding headings like “development loans and advances” and “miscellaneous grants” which mysteriously have allocations exceeding Rs65 billion or more at times.
Where does one find the details of these? Why, in the 3,000-page, three-volume “pink book”, of course. It almost taunts you: “Go ahead. I dare you. Find the textile subsidies, if you have the guts.”
No, the pink book is not for the faint of heart, though, of course, it must be said that at least it exists and journalists should stop being lazy and actually go through the whole thing.
There is, of course, the now-famous accounting slight-of-hand involving the defence budget that conveniently excludes military pensions and somehow transfers them into the civilian budget. That little trick was discovered by the talented accountants of the Musharraf administration.
But there are some even bigger whoppers. For instance, there is about Rs400 billion of debt and expense that simply does not appear anywhere in any budget document at all (yes, not even in the pink book). And that is what the government rather innocently calls “commodity operations”.
Simply put, the government buys large chunks of agricultural commodities (wheat and sugar, mostly) and sells farmers large quantities of agricultural inputs such as fertilisers. All of this, of course, has to be paid for, which the government does through debt. But that debt is not listed in any national accounts. The government justifies this exclusion by saying that the debt is only short-term and the government pays those loans back when it sells off the commodities in the market. This is true, but still not an excuse for the government to not document what it is doing, particularly when the amount is as staggeringly high as over Rs400 billion.
So why does it matter that the government puts out numbers in this confusing manner? Because in the information age, the best way to hide information is in plain sight. Instead of withholding information, the government blasts out a bunch of incoherent numbers at us and hopes that none of us notice. (It is aided in this effort by the pathetic arithmetic skills of nearly every journalist in Pakistan.) If we are to hold our government accountable, we need better numbers and we need them presented in a manner that we can all understand.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 31st, 2012.
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