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The public sentiment has mostly been taken for granted by the governments and the parliamentarians as a class with no voice and the one which would sustain hardships inflicted by the government policies obligingly. This myth has now turned sour and proving wrong. The unprecedented inflation, soaring electricity tariffs and rising fuel prices have reached the threshold of a breaking point.

The countrywide protests over inflated power bills took the government by surprise. Shaken by the dramatic events and the danger of it spinning out of control, Caretaker Prime Minister Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar convened a high-level huddle to mull relief measures, where he directed the finance and energy ministries to formulate a plan within the next 48 hours.

The members of the Senate Standing Committee on Finance demanded the government withdraw seven different kinds of taxes it is collecting on electricity bills and prevent power theft besides ending facilities to the privileged groups.

All of this could have been arrested a long time back. The elites and those in the seat of power, for years, continued to avail preferred treatment in the shape of liberal free electricity entitlements, unchecked electricity pilferage and billing while the power sector remained riddled with incompetence and misgovernance.

On top of this, the rampant influx of independent power producers (IPPs) and the ineffective role of the regulator added to the woes of the power sector. The consequences arising out of it in the shape of high electricity tariffs had been conveniently passed on to consumers to pay for the default and avarice of the few.

Not much is expected out of the government’s attempt to pacify the public anger. At best, it could be a short-lived solution to secure breathing space, but only to resurface in the next bills.

The caretaker Finance Minister, Dr Shamshad Akhtar, told the Senate Standing Committee on Finance that the caretaker government does not have the fiscal space for subsidies but added that the proposal was under consideration to withdraw electricity that privileged ones get free of cost.

She dispelled the perception that the caretakers have unlimited options; instead, she emphasized that they have limited options and will work in a defined period.

She said, “We have assured the IMF staff that the caretaker government is committed to the agreement made by the previous government. We will fulfill all the commitments made by the previous government with the IMF.” The minister also said that “as the country is in an IMF programme, there is therefore a need to tread very carefully and should not take any step which is irresponsible or bad because bilateral loans are linked to the IMF programme”. This limits the discretion of the incumbent government to provide relief to the general public.

That the public at large has carried the burden of vested interests and incompetence of the power sector on its fragile shoulders for far too long is a fact. It is also a fact that every programme of the IMF laid emphasis on the restructuring of the power sector and its privatisation.

Driven by vested interests and vote politics, the process of restructuring and privatisation of the power sector was invariably aborted whenever any government attempted to put it in place.

The public outcry against rising fuel and electricity prices has been joined in by commercial enterprises with shutter-down strikes while the industry is voicing its concerns via media that their businesses have become infeasible and uncompetitive in the domestic and export markets alike. Exports target would be compromised.

Meanwhile, the sentiments of the caretaker government remain bullish. Caretaker Foreign Minister Jalil Abbas Jilani this week said that a huge investment is expected to come from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, which will help in stabilising Pakistan’s dwindling economy.

Jilani’s statement comes amid reports of a likely visit by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman next month to Pakistan, which actually appears to be a courtesy stop-over on his way to India to attend the G20 meeting.

Likewise, caretaker Federal Minister for Commerce and Industries and Production, Gohar Ejaz, set textile export target of $25 billion for the current financial year against the $16 billion target for the last fiscal year against the backdrop of his ambitious target of reaching an overall target of $ 80 billion, whose time-frame has not been spelled out.

Whereas, the nation would be more than content if during the time available with the caretakers, the very basics of the economic and fiscal discipline, state governance and diplomacy could be set right, setting up a stage for the elected government to start with.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2023

Farhat Ali

The writer is a former President, Overseas Investors Chamber of Commerce and Industry

Comments

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KU Sep 02, 2023 11:44am
To understand our economic devastation, we must revisit our tragic history and lust, greed, and power leaving behind collateral damage that we are reaping now. The trickled-out news is that they are taking it for granted and expecting everything to calm down in the coming days. The leadership horde has been advised by the Raj Baboos, as usual, that the people have the ''financial muscle'' to bear inflation and the rising cost of living, so don't worry, be happy. Perhaps, if these Baboos have convinced their clueless masters that ‘’Pakistan has a 3000-year-old history, during which these economic chaos episodes have often been witnessed with some collateral damage to the population, but the monarchy and its Baboos always managed to survive’’.
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