ISLAMABAD: The more they talked about it, the less it turned out to be worth a debate. Despite his longest ever and jargon-laden monologue in the lower house, the annual budget plan turned out to be a non-event.
Pre-budget leaks and debates prove more of an image-building exercise than post-June 3 frosty response the proposed fiscal plan. While political parties share the habit of homework, there has not been a response worth of a shadow government. This week, the parliament will become more deserted and speeches will sound more incoherent, rhetorical and even irrelevant.
The hype of even business-friendly budget has not gone down in the positive stride. So far, the most biased, pro-government analysts have not come up with ‘impressive’ projections the fiscal plan may cause to create in the short run.
Arshad Bhatti, a political scientist and a social activist, doubts if the Dar speech was anything more than an annual parliamentary ritual. “One wonders if the funds will be released for the projects listed in the Public Sector Development Plan.” He pointed to the last year’s disbursement against the PSDP.
His cold shoulder to pensioners and government servants was still warmer than a self-employed or private sector worker received. Hence, it’s no more a cliché that poor are getting poorer.
“I can’t raise my three children despite driving a taxi and working in a travel agency. Even if my company increases my salary by 10 per cent, it would not be any match to price hike,” explained Qadir Jadoon, a resident of Pir Wadhai, who hails from Mansehra.
The private sector is not obliged to follow the government’s suit. When minimum wages were increased to Rs 10,000 last year, there were only a few employers which opted to respect the decree.
“I am suffering from blood pressure and sugar. Though I am 55, my eldest child is about 7-year-old. Even the state-owned oil retail company complied with the decision in January,” says Wasim Ahmad, who works at PSO petrol station in Islamabad. He has little hope for any greener pastures promised by the finance minister.
Meanwhile, the government simply ignored over 0.5 million pensioners of the Employees Old-age Benefit Institution (EOBI).
These retires were so unlucky to have been denied their share in peanuts (minimum pension raise from Rs 5,000 to Rs 6, 000 per month) offered to the federal government colleagues. Amid the price hike and monthly mini-budgets, the EOBI pensioners get paltry pension sum of Rs 3,600 every month. These senior citizen were ignored last year too when the pensions were raised from Rs 3,000 to Rs 5,000.
With substantive sums of money earmarked for public transportation and other infrastructure projects, the share of education has slid contrary to the rhetoric. Innovation and entrepreneurship can kick-start an economy with abundant surplus pool of educated manpower and resources. The issue remains far-fetched to the country’s fiscal planners.
Some economists believe that the money handed out to the poor through National Income Support Programme which also includes Benazir Income Support Programme could have been spent in developing region-based industries such as preserving and packaging locally produced fruits, vegetables or other items. Instead of making people dependent for good, the impoverished areas could have been enabled to stand on their feet.
Similarly, the focus has been to construct highways while farm to market communication links are still missing. The middleman makes money in this largely agrarian country while the peasants perpetually suffer. The gaps, identified countless times, remain invisible to Finance Minister Ishaq Dar.
Even for energy sector, there has been little application of mind. Though appliances and gadgets used for solar and renewable energy production are kept duty free, their cost remains high for the common man to afford. If the banks could offer low-interest loans to the public for solar cells etc, the government could have saved sizeable portion of megawatts, and political face too. While spending billions in bigger energy projects can’t be denied but there is nothing better than a self-reliant household.
Worth mentioning here just to refresh the memory here, the government had announced import of small hybrid vehicles to lessen the nation’s oil import bill. Monstrous lobby of Japanese car manufacturers prevailed and no cars of 1200 cc could be imported. The matter was brushed under the carpet then. Import of small hybrid family cars remains off-limits even today.
Last but not the least, the next year’s fiscal plan won’t touch the fundamental question of reforms within the Federal Bureau of Revenue which invariably misses its taxation targets, especially when the phrase of widening of the tax net wins has become meaningless.
The shame of over half of Pakistan’s population living below the poverty line may become graver over the next 12 months.
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