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The Provinces Have To Help The Country’s Struggle To Free Itself Of The Debt Trap

Ever since the passage of the historic 18th amendment, the controversy over whether the abolition of the concurrent list – and as a result the devolution of power – was the right decision or not, is far from over. Primarily, it is the funding shortage at the centre that brings to the fore the issue of a revision of the 18th amendment. Keeping in view the poor financial health of Pakistan, there is a need that the federating units should be contributing, as a national responsibility but not as a liability, so that debt burden may be retired and a shared form of development may be ushered in.

Any criticism per se on the basis of devolution of power pertaining to the 18th amendment is certainly unwarranted, for the devolution of power is central to the federal system of governance. The passage of the 18th amendment is amongst the rare moments in history of Pakistan that all the political parties developed consensus for much-need constitutional reforms and they jointly and painstakingly worked towards that end.

The 18th amendment brought about significant changes in the constitution that cemented the centre-province relations, inserted new articles and revamped existing provisions. The significant alteration of the article 6 has almost shut the door for future dictators. Insertion of articles 10-A, 19-A, 25-A and 140-A are among other necessary additions. Abolition of concurrent lists and consequent devolution of power addressed long-standing grievances of federating units, and rendered the skewed narratives of the insurgents as unappealing.

However, any scheme to amend the constitution or debate on it is dubbed as a conspiracy to reverse the 18th amendment. Unfortunately, we are surrounded by conspiracy theories and consider any debate as tantamount to muzzling the culture of debate as well as erecting unnecessary hurdles for the parliamentarians to perform their core function of legislation. It is their prerogative to deliberate on any constitutional draft and in case it gets requisite support of two-third majority, it should be welcomed. After all, these changes are contemplated by the elected representatives representing 220 million people of Pakistan.

The historic 18th amendment also altered the National Finance Commission (NFC) formula. The provinces are to receive 57.5 per cent from the Federal Consolidated Fund and on the other hand the federal government is to keep merely 43.5 percent – that is certainly insufficient against the insurmountable economic challenges.

Needless to say, Pakistan’s economic health has been badly battered by wrong policy directions since the beginning along with political instability, frequent government changes and martial laws. After the unfortunate – for Americans as well as for Pakistanis – incident of 9/11, Pakistan suffered a loss of more than $140 billion.

Thereafter, a never-ending vicious circle ensued of seeking loans from every debtor on the planet that we know. Nevertheless it was deficient in vision as to how the principal amount is to be returned in addition to the accruing debt-serving.

Beginning from the dictatorial Musharaf regime and followed by the PPP, PML-N and now PTI – all generously borrowed money. These loans were not for investment purposes, but rather for debt-servicing and repayments as the loans matured.

Also, this was not entirely for escaping the sovereign default, but also included politically expedient decisions that created a nightmare, such as artificial control over the exchange rate.

As of now, Pakistan’s total debt and liabilities have exceeded Rs. 41,489 billion. In June 2018, it stood at Rs. 29,861 billion. In other words, during the PTI’s tenure, debt and liabilities have added more than Rs. 12,000 billion.

To Pakistan’s bad luck, whenever a government is about to complete its tenure, it takes politically popular decisions that put economic pressure on the already strained exchequer. In effect, the successive governments have to borrow more and more to avoid default. That is how our economic (mis)management played out since long. And we cannot break the vicious cycle of seeking loans.

Criticizing the incumbent government is a crucial aspect of accountability and democracy, but holding the Imran Khan-led PTI government responsible for the economic mismanagement is squarely unjustified, in view of the above background. When Imran Khan took power, the economy of Pakistan was proverbially in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU). Following the tradition or to get breathing space (depending on your perspective), the PTI government sought loans from friendly countries and financial institutions.

Due to these vulnerabilities, there is a need that the parliamentarians debate how to get out of this mess. All the political parties should treat it as a grave issue crucial to our survival. In fact exhibiting reluctance to impose a strict lockdown amidst the pandemic is also because of the critical economic condition. Hence, the stakeholders should deliberate on a “Charter of Debt Retirement (CDR)”. In addition, a constitutional amendment should be considered through which the federating units should be contributing a certain amount as agreed upon through the CDR with the sole purpose of retiring the debt.

However, the existing NFC distribution should not be disturbed. Instead a new sunset sub-clause ought to be inserted which should have a validity of 20 years: for instance, that each province ought to contribute 1 per cent of its share of the NFC in this regard, considering it as a national responsibility and above partisan politics. All Pakistanis are under heaps of debt if viewed from another lens, i.e. Pakistan’s per capita debt.

The crises in nation’s history should serve as an eye-opener. Since earlier instances have been ignored, the pandemic is a wake-up call collectively for the Pakistani nation in general and the government and the parliamentary parties in particular to put our house in order – lest history keep repeating itself and eventually we reach a point from which recovery will be prohibitively painful.

 

The writer is freelance contributor and can be reached at [email protected]
Twitter: @AmjadSiyal

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