Malice Towards None & All: Pakistan's Political Economy Will Remain Exploitative Even After 2024 Elections

An unholy anti-people alliance of civil-military bureaucrats, corrupt and inefficient politicians and greedy businessmen, controls the nation's political economy, and it is foolhardy to expect them to change their ways after the Election.

Malice Towards None & All: Pakistan's Political Economy Will Remain Exploitative Even After 2024 Elections

“The State shall ensure the elimination of all forms of exploitation and the gradual fulfilment of the fundamental principle, from each according to his ability to each according to his work.”—Article 3, Constitution of Islamic Republic of Pakistan

“Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.”—Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his book, The Social Contract 

Delayed and controversial even before happening, general elections 2024 are only 11 days away. These are going to be crucial. Pakistan, as in 1971, is once again at a critical juncture in its history, where the political and economic viability of the state is at stake. In the overall pessimistic landscape, arising in the wake of denial of election symbol to a popular party, people at large are disillusioned. In this peculiar milieu, the fundamental issue of the social contract between state and citizen needs deep and thorough deliberations, especially from the perspective of the unholy alliance of militro-judicial-civil complex.

The main malady faced by us in politico-economic and social spheres is elitism. Ours is undoubtedly, an elitist State. Dr. Ishrat Husain, former Advisor to Prime Minister for Institutional Reforms & Austerity, explained crisis of an elitist economy in his book published in 1999, titled, Pakistan: Economy of an Elitist State.  He observed and concluded that in sharp contrast to the East Asian model of ‘shared growth’, based on rapid economic development coupled with a rapid reduction in poverty and more equitable distribution of “the benefits of development in Pakistan, the elitist model confers political and economic powers to a small coterie of elite (parasites)”.  It confirms that our small coterie elite is parasitic as well. It is also predatory!

What explained by Dr. Ishrat in 1999 still prevails in 2024, even after about quarter of a century. The author also failed to deliver when became member of a team of ex-premier Imran Khan, given the task of undertaking fundamental structural reforms in civil services. He resigned without admitting the failure. The aim of reform agenda given to him was not limited to civil services, but to bring prosperity for the country as a whole, and its benefits for all citizens, especially the poor and less-privileged.  

During the early part of government of Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), a comprehensive poverty alleviation program for the downtrodden, named Ehsaas [Compassion] to covey the feelings for the underprivileged and socioeconomically disadvantaged to ensure their well-being and social mobility, was started. Ehsaas, later reverted to Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP), was ostensibly for economically weaker sections of society, and these largely included those living below the poverty line, but also encompassed the destitute, unemployed, shelterless, widows, disables, orphans and those who were  unable to earn or their means of earrings were too meagre to live a decent life.   

The then Prime Minister desirous of prosperity and poverty alleviation proudly presented Ehsaas, that was launched on March 27, 2019 claiming that “it is something never done before in Pakistan.” The website of Ehsaas claimed that its purpose was “to reduce inequality, invest in people, and lift lagging districts. Ehsaas is about the creation of a ‘welfare state’ by countering elite capture and leveraging 21st century tools—such as using data and technology to create precision safety nets; promoting financial inclusion and access to digital services; supporting the economic empowerment of women.”

The issue of transparency and malpractices that usually creep into such programs in Pakistan in the past due to political clout, expediencies or bureaucratic greed and capture were also well taken care according to claim of Dr. Sania Nishtar as Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Social Protection. She was also the Chairperson of the Benazir Income Support Program (BISP) and the Poverty Alleviation Coordination Council. Now Dr. Amjad Saqib, yet a renowned name, is at the helm of affairs of BISP.   

Dr. Sania was responsible for administering Ehsaas, the prime umbrella initiative for welfare schemes—a dream of Imran Khan. She enjoyed experience of working in the government shortly—served as federal minister in the 2013 under caretaker government with responsibilities for ‘Health, Science and Technology, Information Technology, and Higher Education’ ministries.

She proudly posted on the website of Ehsaas, the following message:

BISP has taken action against 2,543 government officers and their spouses of grade-17 and above who had got themselves registered among the beneficiaries from the social safety net and recei­ved the assistance meant for the poorest of the poor. They have been excluded from the program. The BISP has also written to the provincial chief secretaries and federal ministries whose officers had illegally enrolled themselves as BISP beneficiaries. To avoid such irregularities in future, appropriate measures had been taken under the government’s Ehsaas programmer reforms, Dr. Sania Nishtar, SAPM on Social Protection and Poverty Alleviation and BISP Chairperson said.

According to official data, the highest number of government officials receiving the BISP assistance was from Sindh. As many as 1,122 officers of Grade-17 and above from the province had been BISP beneficiaries. The second highest number came from Balochistan where 741 government officials were signed up for the poverty alleviation scheme. From Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, 403 government officials availed the BISP funds, while 137 did so from Punjab. From the federal government, 62 officers received the programme funds. Additionally, one officer of the Pakistan Railways, 22 of Pakistan-administered Kashmir, and 49 of Gilgit-Baltistan were also marked as undeserving recipients of the BISP.

The bifurcation of grade-wise abusers of members of civil service contained in the above Press Release was posted at the website. However, the nation – to this day - is still waiting for their names, which is their fundamental right under Article 19A of the Constitution of Islamic Republic of Pakistan, in addition to strict action against them after providing them right of fair trial as guaranteed under Article 10A of the Constitution. This was a test case for Dr. Sania assuring the masses that in Ehsaas and other initiatives, nobody would even think of such fraud, dishonesty and irregularities—a robbery in broad daylight of money meant for the needy. But as in the past, members of the elite class remained untouchable in this Land of the Pure!

Dr. Amjad Saqib, another crusader of truth, should now divulge their name and take those to task, who were heading BISP. If they were not culpable in this fraud and forgery, surely acted incompetently/inefficiently to let it happened. This is our main dilemma—even the honest and competent heads of departments cannot stop or minimize irregularities and fraud in their institutions, let alone identifying and punishing the black sheep. They shift blame on subordinates, but as heads of institutions, they should be held equally responsible for anything unlawful happening under their control and command.

The above confirms that our institutions lack proper implementation of internal systems of check and balance. They let the corruption happens and then come the most incompetent and loathsome authority, the so-called watchdog against corruption—National Accountability Bureau (NAB)—having the proven record of poor and flawed investigation and its ability to prosecution is even more pathetic! The law that it administers, The National Accountability Ordinance of 1999, made effective from January 1, 1985 by military dictator, late General Pervez Musharraf, is faulty, draconian and against the many provision of the Constitution.  

The goals of Ehsaas as per website were very impressive - a set of seven time-bound goals and targets were stipulated - which included: safety net for at least 10 million families, livelihood opportunities for 3.8 million individuals, financial access to healthcare for 10 million families, scholarships and education incentives for 5 million students (50% girls), financial and digital inclusion for 7 million individuals (90% women), enabling environment for poverty reduction, and equality promoting multi-sectoral partnerships and innovations.

The success of any program or initiative depends on the delivery and not mere clichés and promises. Ehsaas failed to deliver like many other such initiatives. The main reasons remained our outdated institutions, which are inefficient, and incompetent as well as suffering from sleaze.

The success of Ehsaas was largely dependent on Dr. Ishrat’s task of reforming the administrative structure, which he abandoned. The case in point is Federal Board of Revenue (FBR) that after seven-year-long (2004 to 2011) World Bank funded Tax Administration Reforms Program (TARP) became more dysfunctional as it was before the start of TARP (many call it ‘TRAP’). Later a new program for reforms in the FBR, Pakistan Raises Revenue (PRR), with US$ 400 million through a World Bank loan was launched without any research or study into its efficacy.

Tragically, all the economic policies, adopted by the military and civilian rules, since the inception of the country, have been aimed at promoting, protecting and cementing interests of the state oligarchy—militro-judicial-civil complex, absentee landowners, industrialists and public office holders. This Land of the Pure has, undoubtedly, nurtured an extremely exploitative socioeconomic system, which has gained strength over the passage of time—just have a look at the life of luxury these elites enjoy at the expense of taxpayers’ money. Adding insult to injury, the apex court in 1990 held that land reforms were “un-Islamic.”

Will the new government after general elections on February 8, 2024, help landless tillers to get lands to be empowered in the real sense of the word? Will the youth get knowledge on how to run a business or profession with poor quality of education and no vocational training? Will there be any action, even contemplated in any paper or policy, to end various kinds of repressions, coupled with cruelest means of economic exploitation by the ruling elites, presently in vogue in Pakistan, denying citizens their right to a decent life explained in great detail by the Supreme Court in the case of Ms. Shehla Zia v. WAPDA [PLD 1994 SC 693].

We never heard of even mentioning of this case by any minister or state functionary in any discourse what to speak of implementing it! The present scale of minimum wage is a shameful act in the face of Article 3 of the Constitution which says: “The State shall ensure the elimination of all forms of exploitation and the gradual fulfilment of the fundamental principle, from each according to his ability, to each according to his work.”

The privileged classes protect and perpetuate exploitation of the poor with impunity in this Islamic Republic of Pakistan. The example of Qazalbash Waqf v. Chief Land Commissioner, Punjab and others (PLD 1990 SC 99), is apt where the judiciary protected the interests of mighty absentee landowners. The decision of the Shariat Appellate Bench of Supreme Court confirmed the decision of Shariat Court, established by Ziaul Haq, quashing the progressive land reforms law as repugnant to the Quran and Sunnah. 

A nine-member bench of the apex court later heard a review petition, filed by Workers’ Party, National Party, Kissan Committee and others, against the said decision, but till today nothing has happened—not even the PTI and other parties ever thought of having fresh legislation to undo the judgement. It is a matter of record that the then party in rule Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), through the Advocate General of Punjab opposed the review petition.

On behalf of landowners, the head of their organization Shah Mahmood Qureshi, later became foreign minister and an important leader of PTI (established to fight for justice), hired an expensive lawyer, who claimed to be amongst the framers of 1973 Constitution to oppose the review! This is the reality of a country where in the past and in the present, claims were made for establishing a welfare state ensuring social mobility of the downtrodden as promised in Article 3 and providing them decent right of life [Article 9] and free and compulsory education [Article 25A].

Is any political party in Pakistan inclined to change the highly unjust and oppressive economic system? All those in power have protected the exploitative classes, who have a monopoly over resources. These parties are not even sincere with the Constitution—having no will to collect taxes from the rich, rather giving them unprecedented amnesties and immunities to whiten their untaxed or ill-gotten wealth. The poor are paying exorbitant indirect taxes, even on essential commodities of everyday use, but the mighty sections of society—big absentee landowners, industrialists, generals and bureaucrats—are enjoying life without paying no or meagre taxes on their colossal assets and incomes. The state functionaries, politicians in power and judges receive tax-free allowances, privileges, perks, club and golf facilities—all funded by taxes extorted from the common citizens who in return even do not get what is guaranteed in the Constitution.

The gigantic and useless government apparatus—doing nothing for public welfare—is looting the wealth of the nation and wasting billions collected from the people. In the last government, the army of ministers, state ministers, advisers, consultants, high-ranking government servants was not willing to give up unprecedented perquisites and privileges. They were not even ready to live like common men by surrendering the luxury they had been enjoying at the cost of taxpayers’ money. It will continue unabated after upcoming elections.   

The powerful interests in our society defy Article 3 of the Constitution with impunity. An unholy anti-people alliance of the trio of indomitable civil-military bureaucrats, corrupt and inefficient politicians and greedy businessmen, controlling and enjoying 90% of resources is contributing less than 1% towards national revenue collection. It will, thus, be equivalent to living in fool’s paradise to expect them to implement Article 3 of Constitution after elections. They will keep the poor always dependent on alms and will never seek to make them capable of being economically independent—they are the vote bank – the poor subjects of the privileged classes and nothing else!

The writer, Advocate Supreme Court, is Adjunct Faculty at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), member Advisory Board and Visiting Senior Fellow of Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE)