Making the hard decisions to set our house in order

Published: June 10, 2011
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The writer was foreign secretary from 1994-97 and also served as Pakistan’s ambassador to Iran (1992-94) and the US (1990-91)

The writer was foreign secretary from 1994-97 and also served as Pakistan’s ambassador to Iran (1992-94) and the US (1990-91)

Last week, I had expressed hope that in the coming days we would make the hard decisions needed to prevent our country from sliding into anarchy and chaos. We would not then remain the country to which Muammar Qaddafi would point as an example of what could happen to Libya if his dictatorial regime was brought to an end.

Developments during the past week have not, to say the least, been encouraging. First we had the budget, in which no genuine effort seems to have been made to raise the tax base or to address impediments — energy shortages among others — and yet we have concluded that our deficit will remain under control and that growth will have an upward trajectory. Are we going to continue to go down the path of foreign aid dependency and have a government ‘of the elite by the elite and for the elite’ that taxes the poor and the now dwindling middle class mercilessly to nourish the ‘fat cats’ in the ranks of the bureaucracy and the political establishment? Can we not levy direct taxes that would bring the tax-to-GDP ratio to at least 15 per cent? Can we not spend more on education and health? Can we not stop treating the defence budget as beyond question?

In Karachi, the KESC issues shrill appeals in the press for government support in preventing the 4,000 retrenched employees from disrupting further an already precarious energy supply in the city that is designated rightly as the engine for economic growth in Pakistan. Instead, we have government parties endorsing a strike called by the disgruntled employees. Is this how you are going to maintain industrial production in Karachi? Is this how you are going to attract foreign investment?

Much was made in last year’s budget speech about the need to privatise or close down Public Sector Enterprises. This year’s budget speech seemed to ignore this Rs300-350 billion drain on our exchequer. Some decisions have to be made. Otherwise losses and scandals will continue to mount a la the NICL and the Steel Mill.

What is going to be done about the rental power projects which to date are supplying only 62MW of power as against the planned 2700MW and on which some Rs17 billion have been paid as advances, which have created a further liability for the government of $1.7 billion? Will any heads roll? Will these contracts be cancelled as permitted under the terms of the contracts entered into?

The government announced the formation of an inquiry commission on the Abbottabad episode — as traumatic an event as any in Pakistan’s history of security lapses — almost a month after the event, only to find that such necessary staff work as consulting the Chief Justice before nominating a Supreme Court judge to head the commission had not been done, that one or more members had not been consulted before their names were included and that the mandatory consultation with the opposition had not been completed. As I write this, no commission is yet in being. What steps are to be taken to overcome this level of incompetence in the bureaucracy and Machiavellian indecision in the political set-up?

The prime minister says that the Americans have confirmed that Ilyas Kashmiri was killed in a drone attack, followed by spokespersons from both the Pentagon and the US State Department saying that they have no confirmation of Kashmiri’s death. This follows an earlier episode when, on our prime minister’s return from China after a ‘highly successful visit’, our defence minister said that China was going to build a naval base at Gwadar — only to have the Chinese foreign ministry say that Gwadar was not discussed during the prime minister’s visit and that the spokesperson had not heard of the proposal for a naval base. Has anybody been taken to task for misinforming the defence minister in one case and the prime minister in the other, or is it to be taken as the norm that our leadership at the highest level will continue to make such statements as are tolerated only in case of banana republics?

Perhaps most importantly, the terrorist attacks that have been launched since the killing of Bin Laden in Abbottabad have been terrifyingly effective and have exposed the inadequacy of our internal security structure even while, for at least the last year and a half, the ISI has acknowledged that our principal security threat is internal. Has there been sufficient attention paid to the need for diverting our admittedly scarce resources from our external threat to our internal threat? Has enough been done to enlist the cooperation of civil society or do we intend to continue letting our society believe that all our problems are a result of the machinations of our enemies? If there is some truth in the latter charge, are we prepared to recognise that those who live in glasshouses should not throw stones at others? These others, we must realise, are just as adept at asymmetrical warfare as we are and they can use our internal weaknesses to conduct such warfare without the creation of the domestic monsters that our form of asymmetrical warfare has engendered. Is there a possibility of negotiating a truce or is the cost — a dismantling of our own Frankensteins — too high a price to pay? If it is, then we can only hope that God Almighty will help even those who refuse to help themselves.

The questions that have been posed identify the hard decisions that need to be made to put our house in order, to give our people a chance at a decent living. Time is running out. For far too long have we relied on the famous resilience of the Pakistani people and their tolerance of the corruption and maladministration to which they have been subjected over the last 63 years. For far too long have we tolerated policies that have been external-security-centric, even after we acquired a nuclear deterrent, which came at the cost of internal stability and the economic development that should have been our first priority.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 10th, 2011.

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Reader Comments (2)

  • Meekal Ahmed
    Jun 10, 2011 - 2:09AM

    Mr Ambassador,

    You will be happy to note that in addition to your points, the Chairman FBR (cruelly called Chor-man) said today that the “tax-gap” in Pakistan (the difference between taxes levied and those actually paid into the treasury) was 79%. That means four-fifths of the taxes levied are evaded/disappear.

    The Chor-man, ahem, excuse me, Chairman, FBR said that this gap, or “gape” as Ghulam Ishaq Khan would have pronounced it, needs to be brought down. Such soul-stirring words! It left me breathless.

    Imagine, after 62 year of searching, they have identified 2.3 million Pakistani’s who are fond of the good life who do not pay tax. Of these 0.7 million MAY be brought into the tax net this year and they have been sent “notices”. They have probably already got their lawyers to prepare “stay” orders which our good judges (who also don’t pay taxes), will be happy to grant.

    I honestly think tax collection in Pakistan is an excellent candidate for a public-private partnership (forgive the words: PPP). Like the Chinese who first experiment tentatively with new ideas, give some of the tax collection function to the private sector. See what they can do and make their remuneration contingent on what incremental tax revenue they can earn.

    There is “something rotten in the state of Denmark”, Sir. Recommend

  • Asad
    Jun 10, 2011 - 7:47AM

    Grow poppy…
    send half of it to FATA to calm them down…
    sell the rest in the black market…
    economy, militancy… problems solvedRecommend

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