EDITORIAL: It must be the desperate economic situation that has forced the coalition government, still struggling for legitimacy and so close to the next election, to develop a “multi-pronged strategy to deal with the deep-rooted issue of smuggling.”
In fact, the government is so serious about it, said Minister of State for Finance Aisha Ghaus Pasha during a meeting of the Senate standing committee on finance the other day.
According to her, the prime minister himself has held “a number of meetings” about it. And now we can expect a whole host of corrective measures like capacity building to strengthen border forces and more scanners at strategic locations to track and trace the usual suspects that have got too used to inflating the black economy with Islamabad never too bothered about it; until now.
Surely, all these steps should have been taken a long time ago. And the fact that somebody has just realised that FBR (Federal Board of Revenue) has only about 500 officers deployed over the entire province of Balochistan, one of the flash points of smuggling, reflects very poorly on all parties that have formed government in this country.
Especially since loose borders aren’t the only reason for so much smuggling that, according to credible estimates, the informal economy has grown to more than half the size of the real economy. It is never possible without a lot of corruption in the official machinery, which we also have a lot of.
Pakistan was rated 140th least corrupt out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s 2022 Corruption Perceptions Index, after all, so you can bet that more than a few of the said 500 FBR watchmen in Balochistan, just like other provinces, would have had their hand in the cookie jar all this time.
And while they are finally looking into this problem seriously, perhaps they will also commission a study to pin down just how much the state’s own tax and tariff policies, not to mention typical bureaucratic opaqueness and inefficiency, contribute to it on top of all the fraud and official dishonesty.
The finance ministry is aware, no doubt, of the countless tales of aspiring legitimate businessmen first harassed at every step of setting up new enterprises and then completely discouraged by the exploitative, often abusive, tariff structure; only to be forced to operate under the radar.
These issues must have cropped up in the PM’s successive meetings about smuggling. It’s clear that the government has been badly stung by relentless smuggling of urea and sugar from the country, creating a crippling shortage of these commodities and putting an artificial premium on already very high prices.
It is of course the people that end up paying for these crimes, so the sooner something can be done about them the better for ordinary Pakistanis.
Yet one can only hope that fancy claims will be translated into tough actions this time, because of late all political parties, in government or opposition, have made it amply clear that nothing is more sacred than their own lust for power and privilege, even when it comes at the cost of the common man.
That is why most people ought to be forgiven for taking such promises with a pinch of salt till they see credible results on the ground.
There’s no doubt that corruption and smuggling have harmed the economy so deeply that most people doubt if it can ever be repaired. Yet now that we’re within striking distance of sovereign default there’s every reason to try to plug as many holes as possible.
However, it would have been better and far more practical if this issue were part of a broader process where all parties put their differences aside for a while and worked to save the economy.
Copyright Business Recorder, 2023