Some things you’ll never know

If you see how government numbers are produced, you’ll lose your credulity.

Khurram Husain April 21, 2011

You’ll never know where the money goes in Pakistan. We all know where it comes from — you and me and our taxes, and the farmer who soaks his field with his sweat and the workers in the factories who toil like beasts through the night. But you’ll never know where it goes.

Try and find out a couple of things. For instance, how much interest the government is obliged to pay to power producers on the outstanding circular debt. The money comes from you and me, and it’s paid to the companies where it’s passed on to their shareholders, but you’ll never know how much passes through this channel because there is no disclosure regime in our power sector.

You’ll never know how much of the money given to the fertiliser sector in the form of a subsidy on natural gas — the essential feedstock for the industry — is retained by the companies as profit, and how much is passed through to the farmer, for whom it’s intended. Nowhere in the disclosure regime governing this sector is it obligatory on the companies to reveal the data that would enable you to make this calculation.

You’ll never know if the benefit of the wheat support price actually reaches the farmer, for whom it’s intended. In fact, you’ll never even know whether the person selling the wheat is a farmer or not. The only person who can tell you that is the patwari, and if you know anything about rural Pakistan, you’ll know that every patwari is a liar and a thief whose every word should be rinsed in chlorox before it’s consumed.

You’ll never know how many children are malnourished in Pakistan. The only entity to have shown an interest in that question is a foreign NGO, and the government, going by its reaction, would prefer if that study had never been done.

You’ll never know how much of the electricity we produce actually reaches a paying customer, and how much just vanishes along the way. Yes all distribution companies report “T&D (transmission and distribution) losses” to Nepra as part of their tariff petitions, but look at how these numbers are calculated someday.

In fact, while you’re at it, take a look someday at how government statistics are produced. They used to say that if you enter a Chinese restaurant through the kitchen, you’ll lose your appetite. Well, if you see how government numbers are produced, you’ll lose your credulity.

Take GDP figures as an example. How do you think the government measures output in the manufacturing sector? To make a long story short, you’ll never know what Pakistan’s GDP is, or what the real growth rate is. Even after they announce it at the unveiling of the economic survey, you won’t know because it could get substantially revised next year through the arbitrary application of statistical caprice.

At the end of the day, it boggles the mind to discover how little we actually know about our own country. And that’s just how those running the show like it. Without credible numbers, we don’t know the scale and extent of the plunder of our natural resources like gas by greedy corporations and docking stations for retired generals.

If you think some of the examples cited here are minor, you may be right, but add up all the minor leakages in our tax system and you’re left with a deficit like a wrecking ball, that ultimately gets balanced on our backs, yours and mine and the toiling beasts who are hauled off to work like cattle in iron cages that rattle and rumble through our city streets.

You’ll never know the size of the labour force in this country, or the numbers of those who live deep below the poverty line, or who is receiving what public good for free. This country doesn’t belong to you and me, it never did. We’re Pakistanis, and we are not born free. The right and entitlement to know basic things so we can design and improve the quality of public life is a right that you and I are not entitled to.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 22nd, 2011.


Meekal Ahmed | 10 years ago | Reply I am glad the author has spoken of this matter. I have worked with this bad data for three decades and it has given me the creeps. Bad data means policies are mis-directed and can have unintended consequences. The large-scale manufacturing sector is the tip of the manufacturing ice-berg. Almost 70% of output, employment and exports comes from the small and medium-scale enterprises (SME sector). I think the last survey of activity in this sector is at least 10 years old. Each year a FIXED figure of 7.5% p.a. is put into the national accounts, come hell or high water. In other words, we don't know what is going on in this vital sector. The reason for this negligence is claimed to be money. Yet any external donor would happily offer Pakistan a pure grant for a survey. In the interim, the only solution is to make the Statistics Division an independent entity. Every time the Summary is discussed in Cabinet/ECC there is no decision. It is simply deferred.
Maulana Diesel | 10 years ago | Reply Totally agree with the author. It is in the benefit of the powers to be to make the figures as muddled as possible as that would provide an opportunity to siphon off cash.
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