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Omar R Quraishi: Winter of many discontents

Pakistan cannot afford political crises that come in the way of framing consistent policies

Omar R Quraishi 

Pakistan’s current political crisis and instability obviously aren’t helping its faltering economy. And neither does the posturing vis-à-vis America that followed last November’s disastrous raid of two checkposts on its border with Afghanistan by forces of the (Nato) and the (ISAF), which left two dozen soldiers dead.

The economy faces several serious issues. Let’s take the most problematic: energy. For months, large parts of have suffered massive bouts of load-shedding – scheduled power outages, if you will – which have affected not only domestic but also commercial and industrial users. Though no current estimates are available, this shortage is bound to have a considerable impact on the country’s annual output, when figures are compiled before the announcement of the federal budget for the next fiscal year — an exercise that usually takes place by June of every year.

When one is faced with a crisis so acute, one should think of solutions. Unfortunately, as far as Pakistan’s electricity crisis is concerned, there are no quick-fixes, not even any particularly good short-term solutions. For instance, the government introduced a policy of allowing fast-tracked private power plants; but then got itself embroiled in scandal, after the media reported that many had been given to political favourites, and that the cost of the electricity so generated to the state-owned distributor (who would buy it from the private producer for onward distribution to end-users) was almost double the existing rate.

Meanwhile, needs to increase its water storage capacity because hydro-electricity would be the most feasible method of increasing energy supply; but the issue has become highly politicised. Indeed, so political has it become that all that has been done in the past 10 or so years on this – which means that the previous government, of General Pervez Musharraf, has as much, if not more, blame to shoulder – is that a site for a new dam has been chosen, and a relatively small allocation set aside for the project in the last federal budget. Exploration of alternative energy resources has been done only in name, partly because of the high cost involved but mostly because governments have simply been slow to react to such pressing concerns.

As if this wasn’t enough on the energy front, this winter has heralded another serious problem — and on the same issue. The country has a very high number of vehicles that run on compressed natural gas (CNG), and for the past decade or so, supply of this fuel was promoted by successive governments — as an alternative to petrol that is not only cheap but also environmentally friendly. The inevitable has eventually happened — though the way no government policy maker, or even economic expert in the media, foresaw it suggests that people simply do not have an understanding of basic economics. Because the fuel was promoted all these years – subsidised, in effect, because of its relatively cheaper price – it led to a rapid rise in the demand of CNG, and not just from car owners but also industry and manufacturing. And now, during this winter – when demand for it is seasonally high because it is also used extensively for heating – the shortfall has become so large that the government is considering completely phasing out for use by vehicles. At the moment, in Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, stations are shut during four days of the week. This, more than the current tussle between the judiciary, the military and the PPP-led government, has caused dozens of demonstrations in cities and towns across both these provinces.

In fact, it was only because of the heightened tensions of the past week or so that this issue has perhaps been relegated just a bit, as far as media coverage and public reaction are concerned. That last was quite understandably severe, because the biting cold meant a greater need for heaters, which weren’t working because of the gas shortage!

In the past, ordinary Pakistanis might well have thought that a military government would improve their standard of living, and make living (quite literally) easier. But most realise that the previous government of Musharraf didn’t achieve much of that at all — which may be one major reason why public support of or approval for a coup this time around may be less than lukewarm. Also, anyone who has lived in for the past decade or so should have learned that no ruler, military or civilian, has a magic wand which which to improve the state of the economy. This is not rocket science, true, but given the country’s history of military rule, enough people may have become conditioned to thinking that there is one.

Improvement is possible only through good, consistent policies — implemented over a period of time, regardless of changes in government. One such example that comes to mind is the recent move towards granting Most Favoured Nation status to India, a measure that has the potential to significantly boost Pakistan’s exports and hence its annual output. Yes, there may be lobbies in Pakistan that are against this – and that may be the case for India as well – but most people, the government and, importantly, the military are agreed that the time for this change in relations has come. Why has official thinking come around to accepting this, even pushing for it? It is quite possible that a changing relationship with America has something to do with it. Or, perhaps, an understanding of basic economics may finally be dawning on those who hold real power in Pakistan.

As for the current crises, if the civilian government emerges relatively unscathed, that could prove to be good for ties with all of Pakistan’s neighbours — especially India, given that all major Pakistani political parties, including the Opposition PML-N, led by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, are in favour of the MFN decision. It could also lead to greater ownership by the elected government of security and foreign policies, especially those that relate to America, Afghanistan and India. Of course, such change, if it occurs, will be painfully slow, given that since much of its existence, the civilians have had relatively little say in such matters.


The writer is editor of the editorial pages at The Express Tribune, Karachi. He can be found on Twitter@omar_quraishi  

First Published: Sun, January 15 2012. 00:52 IST