Civil servant's faith in the infinite wisdom of government's 'visible hand' would be comical were it not for its downright tragic consequences. Yet, universal experiences of government intervention failures; from law of unintended consequences to imperfect knowledge and moral hazard, appear insufficient to keep the babus in naya Pakistan from pulling old tricks.
The good news? Islamabadis melancholic for good ol' times of Dar and Sharifs should fret no longer. The district administration has proudly made the announcement of a citizen friendly mobile app called 'Durust Daam'. DC Islamabad described the objective of the mobile app to ensure that "stuff is delivered to houses of consumers with no additional delivery charges…The prices citizens will pay will be 5 percent less than the official price but a bit higher than the wholesale market prices".
What prompted the district administrator to dabble into the realm of Bykea-like delivery apps, one might wonder. It was explained that the "federal capital has over 4,000 shops and only eight magistrates to ensure price control." As a result, retailers were able to get away with violations of official price list, taking advantage of the overstretched official machinery.
How exactly is home delivery (mind you, to over three hundred thousand households!) in the capital city an alternative to overstretched district machinery responsible for maintaining oversight of profiteering and hoarding will be one for the ages. One may also momentarily ignore that the administration may be overstepping its mandate by getting into the business of kitchen items home delivery. But few questions are still warranted.
Existing start-ups in the delivery business operate on a for-profit model. Bykea, Careem and Uber, for example, recover the cost of delivery (plus markup) from the consumer, whereas others recover the same from the supplier. This is intuitive since before fulfilling its basic profit motive, the private enterprise must meet operational costs such as rider's stipend, IT maintenance cost/software engineers' salaries, transport & fuel, and storage, if any.
This raises the obvious question of whether the district administration plans to dip into the official kitty to pay for operational expenditures of this grand scheme.
That makes it hard not to ask whether this may be the most efficient allocation of public resources. Granted that inflation in food items has been substantive in the past several months. But the stated objective, to tackle the rampant "overpricing in posh areas like F and E series sector" is patently absurd.
While consumers may be lured by the "free delivery" branding, residents of a city with highest per capita literacy rate should read this for what it is: an implicit subsidy. By letting the government pay for an extra service that residents of poorer neighbourhoods of the capital - let alone other parts of the country - are not entitled to, the perverse culture of subsidizing elite lifestyle will be allowed to graduate from imported cars to kitchen items.
An alternate and well-established mechanism of targeted subsidy already exists for kitchen items in the form of Utility Stores Corporation. If hoarding and profiteering over essential food items is the primary concern, district administration should ensure that supply of basic commodities is restored in existing utility stores, so that the impoverished are shielded from overpricing.
From sasta tandoor to sehat cards, PTI members including its top cadre had gone to great length in criticizing market interventions by past governments.
With the launch of home delivery service, Islamabad's district administration is set to explore new depths of 'official wisdom'. And this is right under the noses of federal government. If political history is any guide, untargeted subsidies benefiting elite has more resemblance to Marie Antoinette than Riyasat-e-Madina. Prime Minister should take note.