“When we engage in the critical decisions about our nation’s future budgets, I want progressive voices at the table to argue that we must protect the most vulnerable in our society and demand fairness in budget cuts”–Dick Durbin, an American attorney
Pakistan’s budget for fiscal year 2021-2022 was announced on 11 June 2021 amid the usual furor raised by opposition members. Compared to earlier years, this budget seems like a breath of fresh air with the ruling government’s claim of eventually stabilizing the fiscal affairs of this country and looking forward to an upward trend in growth for their remaining tenure. Besides, there is an atmosphere of jubilation at the idea of providing relief to those below the poverty line through micro-financing and skill development under the Ehsaas banner. Another source of pride for this government is reducing some income tax withholding provisions that have been discouraging documentation and increasing cash transactions. Although no new taxes are introduced and sales tax on some items reduced only marginally, it is a fact that the ultra rich are again protected from levy of taxes which are actually due from them.
However, the general public’s interest in the budget is to the extent of balancing its own domestic and commercial books and has no concern for the highly technical jargons used while making budget speeches. Trade/fiscal deficits, gross domestic product (GDP), tax to GDP ratio, debt-to-GDP ratio, National Finance Commission Award, percentages, increase/decrease in revenue, inflation, etc. are all gibberish to those who are more worried about meeting day to day expenses for the subsistence of their families. Price hike/reduction in essential commodities is what matters most. How it would meet ends and whether the future holds any promises for it. The public, which is already subjected to a host of direct and indirect taxes (many in the guise of direct) find no solace in reduced tax rates, credits and rebates because the majority has consciously no intentions of bothering the tax authorities with its existence knowing quite well that once on their roll, its life would become absolutely hell, so oblivious to any concessions, it continues to go about its daily routine.
In a country where rule of law is absent, justice remains undelivered, people are deprived of basic entitlements, public institutions merely exist for the benefit of a handful, the poor are exploited in the name of national interest, where there is total lack of security of people’s lives and possessions, where dacoits roam around freely, where the rich-poor divide is turning into a threatening abyss, where the rulers are absolutely dependent upon foreign prescriptions and fail to take advantage of indigenous ideas/proposals or learn lessons from successful examples in the region, how can the public be expected to welcome this budget or any other budget with open arms?
Every year, the public eagerly await announcements that would bring about a qualitative change in its life that would revolutionise the way in which its future generation can enjoy level playing field with ample opportunities to prosper and progress but every year disappointments are what look straight into their eyes. They have come to realize that political leadership of all possible genres is merely enrapt with brandishing power howsoever and at whatever expense. The defenceless public has nowhere to go and would always remain vulnerable to societal injustices, acts of terrorism, poverty and helplessness for which, grant of a few rupees is enough to absolve the leaders of all responsibilities.
What does it matter, if the public is subjected to the whimsical acts of authorities that when empowered, are forever poised to exploit it to the point of frustration? What does it matter if in the name of education, large sums are allocated to the public sector only to pay hefty salaries to undeserving teachers who have failed to produce knowledgeable, humane and conscious people for this country? What does it matter if roads and highways are built only to erect epitaphs of short-sighted statesmen but the pedestrian is critically exposed to fast moving vehicles because governments are least bothered to provide a decent and respectable transport system for those without private conveyances? So what, if passengers lose their lives in frequently occurring train accidents because the railway department is not at all bothered to manage its affairs competently. When most of the governmental sectors are collapsing, what good can an out-of-the-box budget do to uplift the whole country?
This budget, like its predecessors is just a kedgeree of mixed aspirations that is bound to create more confusion and procedural complications for the public. Facilities for specific sections of society are prone to induce opportunists to take advantage even if it means loss of revenue for the country. Whenever lop-sided policy measures are taken in ignorance of the full picture there will definitely be loopholes and confusions, consistent hallmarks of our annual budgetary exercise.
The writer, lawyer and author, is an Adjunct Faculty at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), member Advisory Board and Senior Visiting Fellow of Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE).