Sunday, June 7, 2015

Daily Times Editorial June 8, 2015

Defending the budget Finance Minister Ishaq Dar is discovering in his third foray into budget making that it is easier to present the budget, much more difficult to defend it. This so irritated the minister during his press conference on Saturday that he snapped and growled at any and every awkward question. Hardly the demeanour expected of a man who portrays himself as in complete control of the country’s finances and confident of having marshalled his arguments to perfection. Dar seems especially irked by the chorus of the budget’s critics that it is pro-rich and anti-poor. He has tried to argue the opposite, but there are few takers for this version. The gist of his argument was that only the rich have been taxed in this budget and the poor helped by not raising the prices of daily use items or POL products. The problem is that even if the first half of the statement is true, there is no guarantee that the combined impact of the budget measures will not lead to inflation led by core food inflation in the weeks and months ahead. As for the latter half, need we remind the minister that the government jacked up POL prices just one week before the budget? Dar went on to argue that the budget was pro-development and would strengthen the economy. This would be fine if we were discussing a five year plan, but the budget is only intended to lay out the policy prescriptions for the economy for one year. The dichotomy between the government’s confidence that in the long run it will succeed in its economic development agenda and all the people have to do is wait for that hallowed day to arrive ignores the very real and immediate distress people are in because of unemployment, inflation, energy and water shortages and a whole host of other afflictions that the government totally ignores. The government must realise in its own interest that it needs to strike a balance between the long term needs of economic growth and the immediate sufferings of the people. If the perception takes hold, as it appears to be doing, that the government is heartless, uncaring and callous about the people’s current sufferings and wants them to grit their teeth until it delivers its promised land, this would eventually translate into disillusionment with the government and may cost it heavily come the next elections. In any case the examples marshalled by Dar to prove his budget being pro-people do exactly the opposite. All he could quote were Rs 102 billion for the BISP, 30,000 solar tube wells and support packages for widows. On the one hand the BISP continues, but according to Asif Zardari, its Waseela-e-Rozgar and Waseela-e-Haq programmes have been quietly shelved, depriving poor people of the opportunity to acquire skills and start their own small businesses. On the other, these sops to the poor and marginalised, while good in themselves, represent only a drop in the sea of poverty and deprivation that characterises the vast majority of the people. Dar’s budget has found more than its share of critics amongst the political opposition too. Apart from Zardari, Imran Khan, Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi and a host of others have all arrived at the same conclusion: the budget is anti-poor, anti-farmers and workers, does not address the concerns of the middle class, and only privileges the rich. This is a damning consensus but one that has taken three years of the government to gell. Now that it has, Dar should read the writing on the wall and attempt to meet his critics at least halfway to assure them and the people at large that the government is contemplating, within the resource constraints, measures to alleviate the people’s miseries. Not to do so can only harm the government itself and its future prospects. People were initially prepared to be patient with the PML-N government’s promise of future prosperity, but the failure to make even a dent in the people’s problems means patience with the government’s future pie-in-the-sky may be wearing thin three years into its tenure.

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