As the government is criticised by the opposition parties for presenting another budget that does not do enough for the most vulnerable segments of society, it is worth remembering that there is a huge swathe of the budget that is simply not under the control of the civilians. Out of a total budget of Rs2.96 trillion, Rs643 billion will be spent on defence and another Rs926 billion on debt servicing. Before the government can even begin to try and implement its preferred policy prescriptions, over half the budget is simply out of its purview and allocated to the two actors that dwarf the power of the civilian government: the military and foreign lenders.
As troubling as the size of the defence budget is, what is truly worrying is how the money is allocated without any accountability for how it will be spent. In the days ahead, as the budget is debated by all political actors, very little light will be shed on what the defence budget is being used for and whether it needs to be this high in the first place. One of the few benefits of having a nuclear deterrent was that it would put us on a relatively even keel with our far bigger and wealthier neighbour to the east and we could give up trying to compete with it on the defence budget. That has not happened because the army still feels entitled to an inordinately large share of the budget and does not feel the need to justify its use to the civilians.
Then there is the challenge posed by debt re-servicing. Pakistan has not been very successful in convincing other countries to forgive most of its debt, but then that is a luxury we scarcely deserve since we keep coming back for more aid, loans and handouts. What is truly troubling is that one of the reasons the debt re-servicing bill is so high is that we want to assure the IMF that loan repayments are high on our agenda so that we can procure another costly loan in the coming financial year. Between the military and the IMF, it seems, there is little room in the budget for the people of Pakistan.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 3rd, 2012.
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