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EDITORIAL: Prime Minister Imran Khan while performing the ground-breaking ceremony of Ravi Riverfront Urban Development Project (RRUDP), apart from its inauguration which was held on 7 August 2020, stated that it is important to dream big to achieve great things, adding that the 'Naya Pakistan' he dreams of is to lift the people out of poverty - an objective unlikely to be met within the short term. The Prime Minister no doubt defines dreams as comprising of salutary objectives the dreamer covets however a German proverb highlights the other side of the coin: dreams are froth or simply wishful thinking.

RRUDP was first suggested in 1947 by the then Deputy Commissioner Lahore, and was picked up by Shahbaz Sharif government in 2014 with Lahore Development Authority awarding its feasibility study to a foreign company. The project was later shelved as it was considered to be economically unfeasible and its resurfacing this year with some modifications may indicate significant domestic and international investors' interest, or so it was claimed by the Prime Minister.

The Prime Minister then proceeded to highlight two of his policies that would realize his dream of lifting people out of poverty - (i) the Ehsaas programme and Panagahs, which have rightly received much appreciation in the media whose allocation rose from 120 billion rupees to 206 billion rupees during two years of his government's five-year tenure - although not enough to meet the needs of the growing numbers pushed under the poverty line due to a shrinking growth rate but a significant rise nonetheless; and (ii) belt tightening to reduce debts amassed by his predecessors. Unfortunately, however, while the Prime Minister's House and Secretariat made considerable savings in the past two years, yet given this item's contribution to total expenditure the impact on the budget has been little, albeit significant, in terms of optics. The government's decision not to raise salaries this year, civilian or defence, is a major step that must be appreciated though budgeted allocations for running of civilian government have risen by 30 billion rupees (against the revised estimates of last year) while defence employees-related expenses have risen by 20 billion rupees (also against revised estimates of last year).

The budget deficit remains at an unsustainable level, projected at negative 7 percent in the current year, against negative 9.4 percent last year, a target that independent economists consider 'unrealistic', while domestic and international debts have risen by more than during previous administrations - domestic debt by more than 7 trillion rupees in just two years and foreign debt projected to rise by 40 billion dollars in thirty-nine months.

It is a fact that what was inherited by the PTI administration would be daunting for any political party yet two years down the line there is little evidence of any change in governance in the two major poorly performing sub-sectors - energy with circular debt in excess of 2 trillion rupees today, against the inheritance of 1.2 trillion rupees, and Federal Board of Revenue's (FBR's) structural reforms remain pending. Other sectors too continue to suffer from governance issues and in spite of the setting up of the task force on governance reforms led by Dr Ishrat Hussein during the first month after the PTI government took oath so far there appears to be little improvement in any sector.

The Prime Minister has consistently maintained that Pakistanis, residents and overseas, are the most charitable in the world, an opinion whose veracity is evident from his personal experience in seeking contributions to the Shaukhat Khanum cancer hospitals. The Prime Minister has also claimed consistently that overseas Pakistanis will invest in the country's development, say in Sarmaya Pakistan bonds, if they are aware that the country is led by an honest man. The Prime Minister also maintains that if the leader is honest, the people of Pakistan too will pay their taxes honestly. The prime minister's honesty is beyond any doubt but this perception has not trickled down. Unfortunately, the perception about FBR and most of the other government agencies and departments remains unchanged and efforts during the past two years of the PTI government have not resulted in substantial investments by overseas Pakistanis and tax collections despite an increase in the number of filers. It transpires that this increase in filers was to avoid the payment of higher rate of taxes for non-filers and they were not liable to pay tax such as pensioners, widows and students. Reliance on meeting the revenue shortfall remains on privatization which remains stalled due to Covid-19.

For realization of the prime minister's aspirations for the country and his dreams to materialize the process of visible change has to commence on the ground for all and sundry to see. After a lapse of two years in government it would not be unreasonable to expect that this process shall begin in earnest sooner rather than later.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2020

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