Home Lightbox Tough Times Ahead

Tough Times Ahead

Regardless of who is in power, there is little chance of immediate relief from the worst issues plaguing Pakistan

by Khaled Ahmed

File photo. Rizwan Tabassum—AFP

With nearly half of 2022 past, Pakistan is politically belly-up as politicians clash violently in the streets, verbally abusing each other in a manner never seen before. As agriculture declines, the pressure of overpopulation has started telling through “economic migration,” while the country remains “naturally” threatened by climate change.

Pakistan has the world’s fourth-highest rate of water use—with the world’s highest waste—and water is increasingly scarce in 2022. The aquifer in the Indus Basin, whose rivers and tributaries constitute Pakistan’s chief water source, is the second-most stressed in the world, with an International Monetary Fund (IMF) report warning that in Pakistan “public water utilities tend to set prices below cost-recovery levels and irrigation water charges recover less than a quarter of annual operating and maintenance costs.”

The country’s economic freedom score is 48.8, making its economy the 153rd freest in the 2022 Index. Pakistan is also ranked 34th among 39 countries in the Asia–Pacific region, which means it can’t even think of comparing itself with India and Bangladesh, and its overall score is below the regional and world averages. Pakistan’s economy slowed in 2019 and contracted in 2020 before resuming growth. But this appears to have been shortlived, as prospects in 2022 don’t appear good given its ideology and politicians. That same ideology has rubbished repeated attempts at population control: in 1947, there were 32 million Pakistanis, which more than doubled to 65 million in 1971. In 1998, the population rose to 132 million, with the 2017 census showing it had risen further to 208 million. Currently, by all estimates, there are 225 million Pakistanis.

Climate or confrontation?

Climate shapes inter-provincial clashes. It has increased warmth in the South Asian plains but in the Himalayas, paradoxically, the glaciers are taking their time melting because of low temperatures there. As a result, the Indus is drying up as it proceeds south toward Sindh. In 2021, the Sindh government recorded receiving 5.38 million acre-feet (MAF) of irrigated water, which is a 35 percent decline in its share of provincial allocation. Red chili, cotton and rice crops have suffered the most due to this shortage of water and the water crisis is taking the shape of provincial grievance through a north-south confrontation, a direct “political fallout” from what climate is doing to Pakistan. Some in Sindh even claimed the decline was a “political move,” despite the Pakistan Meteorologist Department insisting this decrease was a result of climate change.

There is regional fallout to consider too. Under the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty between India and Pakistan, Islamabad gave up its control over three eastern tributaries of the Indus River, which is one of the root causes of its water crisis in 2022. The total inflow of water in the Indus River System was 117 MAF before the treaty. Now, Pakistan receives only 80 MAF, which is allocated to Pakistan’s provinces under the Water Allocation Strategy. This allocation deals in terms of numbers, not water quality, which is different in every region. Both of these crucial variables were missing in the treaty.

Internal war over water

Currently, 97 percent of the fresh water in Pakistan is used in the agriculture sector, which makes up 18 percent of Pakistan’s GDP. Bad agriculture choices, flood irrigation, a lack of hybrid seeding and poor water management are putting a heavy burden on water resources. There are several issues with water management, including a lack of basin-wise management and no proper system to stop evaporation and pilferage (by some estimates, 40 percent of water is lost). Pakistan also faces the challenges of 13 percent of its cultivable land being saline and 30 percent of agricultural land being waterlogged.

One consequence of climate change has been politically defined: In 2021, cotton plantation in Sindh and South Punjab was significantly below target due to water shortages, which Sindh sees as policy-default on the part of the north. Overall, cotton yield in Sindh dropped to 50 percent of the sowing target, with little in the way of a solution to the water crisis at hand. This is also having a direct effect on the economy, which is giving out dire signals, as the rupee circles around 200 against the U.S. dollar.

Dire divinations

In a gloomy forecast published in daily The News last month, economist Farrukh Saleem warned: “Four things are yet to happen: the price of petrol and diesel is yet to go up by an additional 30 percent; the rate of interest is yet to go up by three to four percentage points; the price of electricity is yet to see a new high and the rate of inflation is yet to hit a new high. As the elite power struggle continues tougher times ahead for the other 230 million, for sure. There are two main battles going on within Pakistan: an elite power struggle and a battle to grab the right to appoint the next Army chief. Imagine political battles in the midst of an unprecedented economic meltdown. According to Bloomberg, default threat reaches Pakistan in deepening political crisis.

“Election is not a solution to our problems. We must pay out $4.9 billion before June 30 but no one is prepared to bail us out without the IMF. If the National Assembly is dissolved, Pakistan defaults. If the current government is sent home, Pakistan defaults. We must avoid default—at all costs. Decades of bad politics have now brought Pakistan to where Pakistan has no good choices left. Tougher times ahead, for sure. The only silver lining is that, historically, under the PMLN government—if it lasts in power—the rate of economic growth rises. Resultantly, per capita income increases and the increase in per capita income adds to our capacity to bear tough times.”

Problem of writ of the state

In 1947, the British Raj bequeathed to the Muslims of India a tightly administered state. But next-door Afghanistan was still “uncentralized” and couldn’t be called a normal state. It couldn’t prevent penetration of its territory and it couldn’t collect taxes. But the great proxy war in Afghanistan war was approved by the West fighting its decisive battle with the Soviet Union after the latter invaded Afghanistan in 1979. Pakistan soon began imitating Afghanistan by losing its own writ. Karachi was literally taken over by terrorist groups operating in Afghanistan and Iran; it is still crippled by street crime using the same methods that the terrorists used to keep themselves financially afloat. Pakistan eventually embarked upon a National Action Plan (NAP) “to crack down on terrorism,” and formed a National Counter-Terrorism Authority (NACTA) to restore its state authority—but both remained notable only for their lack of success.

Although no city has been spared by terrorists, some areas of the country are seriously lacking in the state’s outreach. Terrorism that challenged the sovereign state came from many quarters, all of them related to the ideology Pakistan itself was wedded to. Its Taliban were fighting in Afghanistan and the Afghan Taliban were ensconced in all parts of Pakistan together with over 3 million Afghan refugees. The erstwhile tribal areas, which Pakistan wrongly left out of normal administration for decades as some kind of tribal museum, were more infested with warriors than the rest of the country. Each tribal agency was allowed “self-rule” through warlords. Some of these satrapies of terror were adjacent to the big cities and were allowed to extract booty from citizens as the police watched.

Writ-less Provinces

The 2008 Khyber Agency war by the terrorist Lashkar-e-Islam unfolded right under the nose of the administration in Peshawar; the Kurram Agency war proved too much for Islamabad as it spread to adjacent Aurakzai and Mohmand agencies, coming down to the settled districts of the old Frontier Province, Hangu and Kohat. Even in 2018, the Pakistani Taliban in Afghanistan could get anyone killed in Peshawar on demand. These “ungoverned” areas of Pakistan provided 40 percent of the warriors fighting to establish a Taliban state in Afghanistan. The Afghan Taliban, too, populated cities like Quetta and Karachi, two areas that were to lose writ of the state more seriously than the rest of Pakistan. Authorities denied hosting Arab warriors like Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, who were eventually discovered living comfortably in Abbottabad and Karachi, respectively, while spreading terrorism across the globe.

In the hinterland of Sindh, the wadera (feudal lord) never allowed police to function normally and has not accepted the writ of the state to this day. Add to this hiatus of state authority the territory of South Punjab, where the madrassa still rules and the state obeys orders. When a brave Punjab home secretary killed Malik Ishaq, the leader of Daesh-connected Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, during a police encounter in Lahore in 2017, he was chased to his house in the north and killed to scare the Punjab police out of their wits.

Writ of the Taliban

In May 2012, the chief justice of the Peshawar High Court stated that the writ of the Peshawar government did not run beyond 10km, and the people relied on courts to provide what the government could not provide: law and order. The state was in denial. When Kabul complained about Afghan killers hiding in Quetta and launching attacks inside Afghanistan, Islamabad denied there were any Afghan Taliban leaders living in Quetta.

The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) lived off booties collected from settled districts to challenge the state and society. At times people thought this marauding was not so regular and were grateful. One political observer from Bannu in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province put it like this: “The Taliban deserve appreciation for not raiding the settled districts regularly, because the authorities hardly care about stopping them effectively.” Pakistan looked like it was waking up when its Swat valley was occupied by the Pakistani Taliban in 2009. It took action, but Fazlullah, the leader of the Taliban, fled into Afghanistan and escaped punishment for brutalizing the Swatis. He got Nobel Laureate Malala Yousafzai nearly killed with a bullet to her head. Pakistan couldn’t do much because of the lack of its writ. All its enemies were killed by its archenemy, America, with drones. Today, Pakistan refuses to believe that it is falling apart. And that its writ has disappeared from 60 percent of its territory; and foreign killers are still hiding on its territory.

Task beyond ‘dimwit’ leaders

Akmal Hussain, writing in The News on May 29, warned of bad times ahead for Pakistan unless some corrections are made in the state’s economic behavior. He recommends placing the burden of inflation, budgetary expenditure cuts and additional taxation mainly on the rich rather than the poor. So, for example, as fuel price increases trigger a generalized increase in the inflation rate, the minimum rations for the poor must be secured. The Rs. 1.3 trillion tax exemptions currently granted to the rich should be withdrawn and new taxes on the super-rich implemented to finance support for the survival of the poor. Similarly, while petrol prices can be substantially raised, cross-subsidization should be undertaken so that a minimum ration of diesel for operators of public transport and tube-well users can be provided.

Needless to say, all this is easier said than done in a country where a religiously ordained high birth-rate doesn’t allow an economist to think straight. There are gloomy days ahead, given Pakistan’s stalemated politics. Leaders carrying religious haloes around their heads and beads in their hands and threatening medieval punishments to their “chor” (thief) rivals can hardly think in economic terms. As they exchange their sulfurous abuse, Pakistan is faced with dwindling foreign exchange reserves, low exports, high inflation, growing fiscal deficit, and current account deficit. The country finds itself knocking on the door of the IMF for what will be its 22nd loan. Pakistan already owes the IMF billions from previous programs. Indeed, 30.7 percent of Pakistan’s government expenditure is earmarked for debt-servicing, which cannot be supported by its decreasing revenues. Already on the anti-money-laundering Financial Action Task Force’s grey list, Pakistan must focus its attention on resolving its economic woes before it goes bankrupt.

Related Articles

Leave a Comment