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EDITORIAL: During a meeting with parliamentarians of Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf on 27 January 2021, Prime Minister Imran Khan reportedly acquiesced to their long-standing demand to allocate 500 million rupees to each parliamentarian – in the national and provincial assemblies - to undertake development projects in their respective constituencies. Notwithstanding the government’s denial and submission of the Prime Minister’s note in the Supreme Court stating that “no money will be handed over to the legislators to carry out development schemes,” or Imran Khan’s 8 November 2017 speech in Chitral where he stated that throughout the world the job of MNAs and MPAs is to make laws and not get involved with development funds (and denigrating the then Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi for distributing 94 billion rupees among lawmakers of his own and allied parties) the fact is that development funds have never been handed over to legislators though the legislators were allowed to identify the projects in their areas for which the allocated funds were spent.

The objective of development funds to parliamentarians is ostensibly to enable a parliamentarian, who by definition is acutely aware of his constituency’s development needs/priorities, to identify a project and as it begins to be implemented show his constituents that he has successfully represented them in parliament – a factor that may assist him or her to get re-elected. While critics of the parliamentarian development fund present two counter arguments: (i) development constituency level projects must be identified by the local government representatives and not provincial or national assembly members as many of them no longer spend the bulk of their time in their constituencies and therefore are not aware of the priorities of the people who actually reside there; and (ii) if past precedence is anything to go by most of the projects that were supported by parliamentarians during previous administrations were designed to provide a utility to a specific area (particularly electricity and gas) where there was no existing access.

While not challenging the right of Pakistanis residing in rural areas and/or far flung areas to access utilities the fact remains that providing electricity and gas coverage where none existed before resulted in severe shortages leading to massive load shedding. Granted that this could mainly be attributed to poor sectoral management by not focusing on raising supply that would be able to cater to the extending network (prompting both the PPP-led and PML-N governments to put a freeze on new gas connections); however, such projects not only account for rising utility rates that the bulk of the population cannot afford any more (electricity rates were raised three times in less than a month amounting to a raise of 6 rupees per unit) but have also destroyed the financial viability of commercial entities like the Sui Southern and Northern Gas companies that today account for rising subsidies funded by the tax payers. In addition, circular debt is rising – at 2.3 trillion rupees today against 1.2 trillion rupees inherited by the Khan administration.

Today with a budget deficit of 8.1 percent (claimed by the government though economists reckon it’s higher by at least one percentage point) it is a certainty that the government is not in a financial position to extend development funds or indeed to raise subsidies especially given the fact that negotiations with the International Monetary Fund to restart the stalled 6 billion dollar Extended Fund Facility programme are reportedly near completion; and, without doubt, these funds would be opposed by the Fund staff on economic grounds. One can only hope that economic considerations as opposed to political considerations are allowed to prevail. One would hope that the development projects recommended/approved by parliamentarians look closely at the ground realities and special care must be taken not to compromise the viability of public sector commercial entities.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2021