As expected, the government’s decision to raise POL prices massively has provoked an equally massive reaction from traders, industrialists, citizens and political parties (see the Editorial “April Fool’s gift”, Daily Times, April 2, 2012). The business community, including the Chambers, has threatened civil disobedience and the closure of industries if the increases are not withdrawn within three days. Transporters are threatening a raise in fares as a result of the hike in POL prices within 24 hours. Without waiting for a notification allowing a raise in fares by the Punjab Regional Transport Authority (RTA) Secretary, transport owners in various cities including Lahore, Faisalabad and Multan have already raised their fares by 10-15 percent. If past experience is anything to go by, once raised, these fares never come down. The opposition PML-N has decided to stay away from the deliberations of the Parliamentary Committee on National Security (PCNS) to protest the increase in fuel prices. Even the government’s own coalition allies, the MQM and ANP have protested the price hike, with the latter complaining that it is never consulted by the PPP when such decisions are taken. In turn, the All Pakistan CNG Association is questioning the rationale for raising the CNG price to a level unaffordable by many, at a time when CNG load shedding two to three days a week and low gas pressure on most days is causing so much inconvenience and aggravation to consumers and the possible demise of the sector. Everybody and his uncle is crying ‘Uncle!’ at the prospect of the inflationary tsunami that is bound to follow in the wake of this ill-considered decision.
The prospect of mass unrest, strikes, closures and civil disobedience has finally woken up the Lotus eaters in the government. While these lines were being written there were reports that the government is reconsidering the decision and may even reduce or withdraw the price hike altogether. Let us hope that wisdom prevails in the ranks of the government and they see the necessity of unburdening the people of this new baggage of inflation on their backs. Even so, what will the government look like after it reverses its insensitive decision? Like incumbents so beholden to the gnomes of the finance ministry that they first indulge in the adventurism of an ill thought through massive price hike and then are forced to swallow their gall in the face of threatened countrywide mass unrest and are forced into an ignominious retreat. It would have been far better for the image and credibility of the government if it had properly weighed the implications of the hardship that would visit people once the effects of the price hike hit. The technocrats and bureaucrats who advise the government with the cry: ‘There is no alternative!’ should be carried in front of the raging mobs and asked to convince a seething citizenry of their point of view. Nine chances out of ten, they would not be able to walk away from such an ‘encounter’ unscathed. The advice of the experienced political heads in the government should receive much more weightage in the inner deliberations of the government and no decisions should be dictated by the bureaucracy’s gnomes. If the government is suffering a political backlash because of this decision, it is of its own making. Time now to review not only the original price hike decision, but also the decision making procedures of the incumbent coalition.