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Express Tribune Editorials – 22nd May 2016

Budget lost in Panama papers?

The annual budget season this year seems to have been eclipsed by the Panama leaks as the federal government appears to be exceedingly preoccupied with countering the onslaught mounted by the opposition against the prime minister and his family on the issue of ownership of off-shore companies and the question of whether or not the funds used to buy assets overseas were clean and that the way they were transferred out of the country was legitimate. The prime minister has already spoken three times in his defence, whereas his coterie of close aides and ministers also remain preoccupied with the Panama affair. Finance Minister Ishaq Dar, too, since his return from Dubai last week after concluding talks with the IMF, appears to be completely engrossed in the same exercise.

Last year, Mr Dar had chaired more than a dozen meetings on the budget in the first two weeks of May. That’s not the case this year. He has not presided over any budget-related meeting since he returned from Dubai. This is a worrisome situation. More so because the budget is scheduled to be announced on June 3 , preceded by a meeting of the Annual Plan Coordination Committee on May 23 and that of the National Economic Council on May 30. Naturally, the national media as well seems more focused on the Panama leaks rather than on analysing critically the performance of the economy in the outgoing year and projecting the issues in store for the incoming one. Given that Pakistan suffers from a perennial fiscal deficit, it is likely that the government will use the upcoming budget to again increase the tax burden on those segments that are already heavily taxed. However, with the Panama papers revealing details of the rich and powerful in this country, including parliamentarians, possessing assets in tax havens, there could be an outcry if the government went down this path again without doing much to bring the high and mighty into the tax net. If this happens, the opposition is likely to take advantage and put the government under ever-increasing pressure. It is time the government started focusing on important matters of the state like finalising a people-friendly budget. Indeed, the public this time around may not be as supine as it usually is if burdened beyond its capacity.

A perk too far

If there is any single subject that is going to attract controversy anywhere in the world, it is any upwards adjustment of the salary and allowances paid to elected members of democratic assemblies. There is a generalised, if not always entirely justified, public perception that assembly members and parliamentarians are overpaid and underworked. Now it is the turn of Pakistan as a review of salaries and allowances for parliamentarians has rolled over the horizon which recommends some positively eye-watering increases which are said to be “commensurate with their status” and bringing them on a par with BS-22 officers, upping their pocket money to a monthly allowance of Rs470,000.

This exponential jump — they are currently paid, including allowances, around Rs80,000 which is admittedly on the low side — is contained in a set of recommendations that were presented by the Acting Chairman of the Standing Committee on rules of Procedure and Privileges, Chaudhry Mehmood Bashir Virk, and to the surprise of nobody was unanimously adopted as a motion by parliamentarians. Considering that a majority of our parliamentarians are not exactly poverty-stricken before they decided to dedicate their lives to the service of the common man, this is a bit of a stretch. Whilst we do not believe that our parliamentarians should be paid what some would see as a poverty wage, we do believe that there should be a linkage between pay and productivity. A casual look at the Lower House and the Senate on any given day that either is sitting reveals that attendance is often thin, indeed it is not unusual for both houses to be adjourned for lack of a quorum. Were there to be a similar dilatory approach across the spectrum of BS-22 officers, there would quickly be rumblings of discontent, but our parliamentarians appear happy to take our votes and equally happy to be feather-bedded through their tenure with little by way of measured outputs or productivity. A fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work by all means, but the common voter will see this as far from a square deal — and equally far from being value for money.

Higher education woes

Individually, Pakistanis manage to accomplish great things but collectively we are not doing that well, especially when it comes to education. A British university ranking agency, Quacquarelli Symonds (QS), has placed Pakistan at the very bottom of a 50-country list comparing their higher education systems. Unsurprisingly, the US and the UK took the top two spots while China and India made it to the eighth and 24th positions, respectively. Given the chronically low levels of spending on the education sector, Pakistan’s place at the tail-end of this list is not unexpected. Our education budget is spent mostly in covering administrative costs while developmental initiatives are few and have been slow to yield results. The Higher Education Commission has been trying to kick-start quality higher education by funding PhD programmes for several years but that does not appear to be making much difference if one goes by the QS statistics.

Meanwhile, our education system is failing students at all levels. There does not appear to be a culture of inquiry and critical thinking at our universities, leading to graduates finding it difficult to adjust to the needs of the competitive job marker after they are done acquiring mediocre degrees. At the same time, our industries and businesses bemoan the lack of skilled workers. It would be infinitely preferable if the unemployed or underemployed graduates had had their talents redirected towards technical education which could land them better paying work and not force them to look to other countries for a good life. The government has been spending millions on subsidising higher education through public universities but this has only produced graduates who are failing to improve their own lives or do anything worthwhile for the economy. Our higher education policy is in dire need of being reviewed at all levels. Simply subsidising educational institutions or handing out scholarships for PhDs has not done much good. It’s about time we went back to the drawing board and looked for a more sustainable education policy that benefits all.

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