Can the floods wake up the elite from their slumber? If it doesn’t, a bloody anarchic revolution could most certainly be on the cards. Many of us have written about how little the elite give back to Pakistan’s masses and if that trend were to continue unabated a breaking point would not be far. With the merciless deluge that has engulfed our country, that breaking point is now here. From what I can see through TV reports is that the anger is raging and palpable — and rightly so.
Although the current disaster is not of the government or the rich man’s making, nature’s ruthless umbrage falls, once again, disproportionately on those least fortunate. With misery all around us, it is Pakistan’s elite who are in the best position to help, if not for the sake of those wronged then for their own sake, to avoid that bloody revolution that would harm them more than anyone else. This is the subject of a letter written by well-known businessman.
I was recently made privy to the contents of this open letter, written in Urdu, under the title “Pakistan ke ameer tareen khandanon ke naam khula khat”. Addressing some families and individuals specifically, mostly businessmen and his personal friends, the writer acknowledges that Pakistan’s super-rich are indebted to the masses and must give back or face terrible consequences. His prescription is an appeal to form a “fund for the Pakistani awam” which would help rehabilitation efforts by ensuring free food disbursement, building small hospitals and vocational training centres. Citing the example of Bangladesh’s Grameen Bank, he suggests creating micro-credit schemes. In order to set up the fund, he calls upon the super-rich to donate Rs50 million each and then top it up with Rs2 million per month. Once functional, the fund would ask for further donations from those who may not be super-rich but in a position to give. Alluding to the French and Iranian Revolutions, he makes an emotional appeal.
NGOs have done much work in Pakistan, filling important gaps where the government has abdicated. Nevertheless, Pakistan remains one of the countries with the lowest tax-to-GDP ratios in the world. This means that though Pakistan’s elite have contributed significantly to charities, they have evaded paying their due share in taxes. I have often wondered why that is and have come up with a couple of explanations. Charities and NGOs have a better track record than the government. Their work is more visible on the ground and their funds less susceptible to corruption. Also, taxes are anonymous while charities celebrate their donors and founders. The concept of the benefactor and the indebted, so prevalent in our country, is sustained by charity but non-existent in a system funded by taxes. Expectation from the government is premised on entitlement, but relying on private charity fuels indebtedness.
We are stuck in a vicious cycle. The government is incompetent, corrupt and under-funded. The super-rich refuse to pay taxes, barring notable exceptions such as the honourable Jahangir Tareen. Thus we are left with no option but to resort to charity and call upon the very elite who have not otherwise shouldered their responsibilities. The businessman’s letter, with its humble tone and good intention, must be lauded. But do the businessmen trust each other any more than the government? Do they have the will to work together on a mega-project to rebuild lives? We are in a very tough spot. It may already be too late to avoid that dreaded bloody revolution. But if there is a way out of this, it can only rest on unity and discipline. Faith we have never quite been short of. A public-private partnership whereby donors collectively agree on a committee to oversee fund disbursement, working in cohesion with local NGOs as well as the government machinery may be the only way out of this crisis.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 15th, 2010.