STRAIGHT TALK by Hafeez Khan
When we joined the New Campus in late sixties, Punjab University had a vibrant rowing club. The boats were shifted from River Ravi to the canal running through the heart of the Campus. The equipment was reserved for the team and discipline was strictly imposed. Not for long when the first batch of undergraduate honors students landed on the scene.
The guards controlled the boats during the day so the night belonged to us. The padlocks and chain link was no match for our expert locksmiths. There was a single lane road on one side of the canal with bare minimum traffic. Some of our most joyous nights were spent letting the boats drift downstream under a moonlit night with Masood Darhu crooning his favorites. Mango season lent a new flavor, feasting on stolen mangoes from surrounding gardens.
The air was crisp and fresh and moonlight would encompass the Campus in its soothing rays unbroken by any layers of pollution. All that flashed through my mind when I recently called on the Vice Chancellor Dr. Niaz Akhtar along with my Alumni colleagues G A Sabri and Raja Munawar. With the population explosion, congestion and rampant pollution the surroundings have severely deteriorated. It is not just the Campus; it is true for all of Lahore and our urban centers around the country.
After the disastrous decade of “Bibi and Mian” and their cohorts, the pendulum
swung PTI’s way in 2018. Prime Minister Imran Khan had fired up the voters to break the stranglehold of the two-party combo of loot and plunder. Having slogged it out for 22 years people were ready for a change. The expectations were sky high bordering on being unrealistic. To be expected when rays of hope break a dark skyline of corruption and lies.
The tasks for PTI Government were herculean. The gasping economy was in the ICU. The coffers were empty; current account deficits were out of control and governance paralyzed. PM IK took on the challenges frontally and after some missed hits has finally set course of steering the economy in the right direction. He has been termed as a warrior against status quo by supporters. He took on the undocumented retail sector, middlemen and unreported agricultural income.
Two years into his tenure the macro trends are encouraging. The scourge of fiscal deficit is under control and remittances have improved. Foreign direct investments are on the rise and ratings by global financial sectors are improving. Threat of FATF is receding and industry is reviving. Despite a global slowdown due to COVID, Pakistan’s economy has survived well.
In Foreign Affairs Pakistan has made substantial progress. We are no longer hanging on, drifting without direction. Under PM IK we have gained in stature and are no longer taken for granted. Further, noteworthy progress is being made in tourism, improved environment through tree cover and in hydel energy projects. Initiatives in social sector and health cards are laudable.
However, economic reforms are like planting a fruit tree. It takes time to bear fruit. In the meantime all the positive news are being eclipsed by runaway food inflation. It is a sore that is poisoning lives of the common man. The daily chore of putting food on the table is creating a fog that blurs progress made at the macro level. This needs some deep soul searching by the Government and an unbiased analysis by those who wish them well.
There are two issues that require immediate redress. First the failure of planners, economists and agricultural experts to appropriately manage the food supply chain of bare essentials. Secondly, to rectify the absolute failure of the administrative machinery to control profiteers, hoarders and unscrupulous traders. Prices of food essentials are shooting up every week. The driving force is pure unchecked greed.
The laws controlling such activity are weak and its enforcement even weaker. The enforcement staff is corrupt to the core, concerned only with their shakedown bribes. It’s a cycle that is spiraling out of control and no one is being held responsible. A recipe for disaster. This weakness alone can bring the populace out on the roads. It is being forcefully exploited by the opposition.
The Government has failed to go after these criminals forcefully. It is a provincial matter that requires the stick to be wielded. However, the largest province has a clueless leader. How many actions has Punjab CM taken to deal with food shortages and criminal inflation?
A look at the supply side. One wonders how a drop in the value of the rupee can impact the price of tomatoes. Pakistan is an agricultural country with unlimited potential to grow vegetables in abundance. A few hundred acres of vegetables grown in plastic tunnels can meet the demand of a burgeoning city like Lahore.
It requires public-private partnerships, management of crops and logistics to get them to the market. It’s doable but requires political will and determination to deliver by a hands-on leadership. Unfortunately, this is missing sorely. The same is true for poultry and all the other product supplies whose prices are suffocating the people.
On the administrative side immediate legislation is required to give teeth to break the vicious cycle of illegal profiteering and hoarding. If that is not possible it can be through ordinances. There is no better cause that justifies drastic actions than to give the hapless suffering masses some relief. Everyone will pack their bags and leave; it is PM IK’s reputation and political future that is at stake here.