“The budget doesn’t have much control over the government. Then again, the government doesn’t have much control over the budget”—P.J. O’Rourke
Every year around the months of May and June, the government in Pakistan is confronted with perhaps the most arduous challenge that comes with assuming power—presenting the budget for the forthcoming fiscal year that commences on 1st July and ends on 30th June. In anticipation the nation awaits some relief measures, tax cuts, reduction in wasteful expenses, reduced rate of inflation, increased development, better economic growth, more self-sufficiency and greater employment opportunities etc.; knowing very well that these wishes would remain unfulfilled and the people, especially those who linger around poverty lines would have to prepare themselves for the ensuing year of hardship and deprivation. This skepticism is not unfounded as it is based on year on year experiences. Incomes dwindle while commodity prices keep rising. How can a country with poor revenue collection, heavy debts, explosive population, parasitical civil/military bureaucracies and massive public sector enterprises, be expected to provide the much-needed respite to its miserable poor lot?
We are right now caught in a political turbulence that will inevitably have a negative impact on whatever budget is being contemplated by the financial wizards. Exorbitant fuel prices with chances of further increase are bound to render many households gasping for air to survive in the dense cloud of toxic inflation. Meeting day to day kitchen expenses has already become a formidable venture for bread-winners and with the looming fear of price hike, the future is nothing short of a nightmare. Hi-fi economics encircling around quality living and prosperity is fast deteriorating into quest for food for the ordinary citizens. These words of Mercedes Lackey, an American fantasy novelist best depict people’s opinion: “….everything written is at least in part fantasy except maybe the national budget. That’s horror.”
Speaking of horror, many families caught in the current financial warp have the most disturbing tales to share. Wheat is the staple food crop for the approximately 225 million Pakistanis. Rice, though highly cherished is luxury. Now, wheat flour, if available, is the most important ingredient in a poor man’s daily meals. A roti or chapatti with hand ground chutney, crushed onion or pickles comprises their breakfast, lunch and dinner. Mr. A, father of four children and earning minimum wages of Rs. 18,000 a month complained that after paying Rs. 7,000 as rent (including electricity) for a room in a compound shared by six other families, he is left with only Rs. 11,000. The price of better quality wheat flour is about Rs. 5,700 per 60 Kg. but he is compelled to spend Rs. 4,200 on buying the same amount of sub-standard flour to barely feed his family. Low in nutritional value, this is just enough to satiate their hunger but leads to health problems related to deficiencies and illnesses. Meat, vegetables, sugar, cooking oil, new clothes, shoes, medicines and hygiene essentials are beyond their reach for which they look up to the benevolence of sympathizing human beings.
Ms. B is a widow who, along with her three orphan daughters makes a living by cutting threads off the embroidered fabrics manufactured by local middle-sized factories. Deprived of a male family member, life is even harsher and more difficult for these females. Their pale faces and skeleton-like physique speak volumes of their ill fate. While the political elite continue with their egoistic games of power, they are totally oblivious to the sufferings of people like Mr. A and Ms. B and on top of that expect them to turn up in their support in rallies heavily financed through donations while their own children are bereft of basic necessities.
A major chunk of the population is either below or at the level of the poverty line which means that before anything, governments engaged in preparing annual budgets must prioritise ample supply of inexpensive good quality wheat and not the imported one that is fit only for animal consumption. Sound health of the nation is a vital element for any country to progress and compete with others. Malnutrition, stunted growth, diseases and mental ailments are all outcomes of poor dietary intake. One does not have to be an Aristotle to understand this basic philosophy but unfortunately our leaders at the helm have lost their ability to see the disastrous effects of their ill-conceived policies, especially towards the downtrodden. In their mad race for power they have literally trampled upon those who deserved their most attention.
Walter Ulbricht, a German communist politician rightly said: “Any sensible family has a budget that lays out how much will be spent for household and other purposes. Without such planning, things would quickly go awry”. The same is true for governments as well for whom Ross Perot suggests: “The budget should be balanced, the treasury should be refilled, the public debt should be reduced and the arrogance of public officials should be controlled”. For effective governance, it is incumbent to direct the executive to approach the public in a humane manner then only can desired results be achieved.
Ending on Joni Ernst’s practical advice to ruling governments that “It’s time to stop spending money we don’t have and balance the budget” one can only advise the budget makers who have an extremely tough task ahead to be mindful of the millions below poverty line. In their eagerness to benefit the handful rich with some new amnesty schemes or undeserved tax cuts, it is hoped that they would not sacrifice the poor and needy.
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)