Dec 25, 2009

Austerity drive

Tayyab Siddiqui

Every government that takes the rein of power pledges itself to live within the means, ensure good governance by eliminating wasteful expenditure and adopt effective measures to raise revenue and reduce non-developmental expenditure. The Gilani government is no exception. The cabinet on the weekend met in a special session and approved a number of measures recommended by a parliamentary committee to end profligacy. The major steps, inter alia, relate to administrative structure, presidency and prime minister’s establishments.

The Gilani government has the largest cabinet in the history of Pakistan with 44 ministries and 46 divisions. The bloated bureaucracy came into existence during the Gilani regime itself. It, therefore, is disingenuous to cut down a couple of ministries or down-grade them and claim credit for moving in the direction of austerity.

Cabinet members have been given perks and privileges not known in other democratic countries. Practically all ministers have been provided armoured Mercedes costing Rs10 million each, in addition to fleet a helicopter at their disposal. This extravagance is exceeded by lavish expenditure on foreign tours. The National Assembly was recently informed that prime minister’s foreign visits cost Rs80 million in the last four months. The visits were largely ceremonial and not justified in terms of national interests. The decision to cut expenditure on foreign tours by 30 per cent is primarily an exercise in public relations. The decision that cars of 1,600cc and 1,800cc will be used by ministers is reminiscent of a similar decision by Prime Minister Junejo. We all know what happened later. Other measures such as withdrawal of Hajj facilities at government expense and one dish to be served at official dinners are pure gimmicks and their impact negligible.

These decisions, laudable as they may be in terms of concept, are not practical. Who would tell the president or the prime minister that he could not visit abroad as the funds under the head had been utilised fully? How would the transgression be monitored and what mechanism is available to ensure adherence to these austerity measures? Unless such violations are made culpable, these measures would amount to a cruel joke. The fundamental question is: who will bell the cat?

Former prime minister Shaukat Aziz spent over Rs1 billion on 47 foreign visits. President Musharraf, not to be outdone, spent Rs1.4 billion on foreign visits in the same period.

If the prime minister is really serious, the far more meaningful step would be to limit the entourage accompanying these foreign visits. On average up to 200 cronies accompany the president/prime minister on each visit. Shaukat Aziz, according to official statistics, took 2,120 persons mostly hangers-on, on these visits. He also took a 45-member delegation to Umrah costing the national exchequer Rs8.7 million. He lied to the nation that he had personally met the expenditure. Zardari also followed the same practice, taking 200 people in two chartered flights for Umrah early this year claiming that he had personally paid all the expenses.

Unless there are specific goals and an effective mechanism to oversee wasteful expenditure such decisions will only provoke sneer. I suggest that the Public Accounts Committee should be the authority to monitor and approve expenditure in terms of the new policy across the board. Only a constitutional status to the authority will enforce compliance.

Discretionary funds at the disposal of the president and the prime minister also need to be drastically cut, if not withdrawn. To dole out millions of rupees to the cricket team for its performance in a match is both frivolous and irresponsible.

The government for its own credibility should also do away with payment of Rs20 million every fiscal year to each MNA ostensibly for development schemes in their area.

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