By Pervez Hoodbhoy
WITH economic meltdown around the corner and the dollar over the roof, panic is all around. If successful, Finance Minister Miftah Ismail’s IMF negotiations in Doha may push ahead the day of reckoning by some months. But then what? How long before the house of cards comes crashing down? Decades of overspending and underproduction cannot be undone in a day.
Each successive government has routinely blamed its predecessor for all that’s gone wrong. Whichever party wins the next elections — if and when held — will surely continue this childish charade. In so passing the buck, Pakistan seeks to avoid recognising that it is the sick man of South Asia. This denial means it will resist seeking the right medicines. Today Pakistan lags behind Bangladesh and India in every indicator of consequence: economy, political stability, and human development.
There are three powerful reasons for our present predicament.
First is militarism. Since 1947, Pakistan has had a war economy. This enabled it to fight four wars, one of which was forced upon it but the other three were of choice. The luxury of choosing to go to war in 1965, and then again in 1999, was made possible by generous military and economic aid provided by the US. But now that Pakistan’s ex-patron has turned niggardly, and our current taller-than-the-Himalayas patron appears unenthusiastic, a forever war with India over Kashmir is unaffordable.
That India’s occupation puts Kashmiris at the mercy of Indian security forces is tragic. This has been the case now for decades. But India’s wrongdoing became an excuse for creating a militarised Pakistani security state that, for selfish institutional reasons, has sought to keep Kashmir on the boil. Little good has resulted but plenty of harm was caused all around, including to Pakistan itself.
Pakistan suffered self-inflicted wounds by harbouring militants who ultimately turned their guns on their benefactor. Nevertheless, there is a glimmer of hope. The 31-year sentence awarded to Lashkar-e-Taiba supremo Hafiz Saeed is a clear admission that the old policies will not work. High inside the military establishment it has been understood that cross-border jihad must be shelved. Fear of FATF contributed in no small way.
More needs to be undone. Does it make sense to make a sick economy sicker by closing down the country for one full day on the fifth of every February? Or have all government employees and school students stand outside their buildings every Friday at noon and observe a five-minute silence (this flopped after the first attempt)? Or rename Kashmir Highway as Srinagar Highway in the vain hope that this will carry triumphant Pakistanis into the heart of Kashmir?
Recipe: Pakistan must let embattled Kashmiris sort out their problems with India while staying strictly within the formal bounds of what we have pledged to do — provide Kashmiris political and diplomatic support, and no more. If regional peace follows then one can be hopeful about civilian supremacy in Pakistan, moderation of defence expenses and, ultimately, some degree of self-sufficiency. Instead of more back-breaking Chinese loans, the way ahead lies through mutually beneficial Pakistan-India trade. If China and India are geopolitical rivals that can trade massively with each other, why cannot Pakistan and India do the same?
Second is Pakistan’s uncontrolled population growth. Our cities are bursting at the seams, spilling far into the countryside, and gobbling up agricultural land. Pakistan’s present rate of population increase is enough to create one more Israel every two years. In another 25 years there will be 400 million Pakistani NIC holders.
In his new book Charter of the Economy, economist Hafiz Pasha has considered some impacts. Water availability has decreased by 49 per cent between 1990-1991 and 2020-2021; unemployment has risen from 1.7pc in 1961 to 3.1pc in 1981 to 5.8pc in 2018; availability of agricultural land has decreased from 6.1 acres in 1947 to 0.49 acres per capita of rural population; the quality of life in Karachi stands at 201 out of 231 cities in the world; etc.
Nevertheless, believing that more is better, like old-time Catholics, many Muslim conservatives continue to oppose contraception. Every newborn, they say, comes with a guaranteed rizq (provision) stamped on its forehead. Let’s assume this is correct and food was to drop miraculously from the skies for every Pakistani man, woman and child. Then what?
The law of exponential growth says that Pakistan will run out of physical space in a few decades, and water well before that. As for the amount of human waste generated and where it will go — one does not want to even think about it. And yet, setting aside this horrific future scene, Pakistan abolished the ministry for population planning many years ago.
Third is the rock-bottom quality of Pakistan’s education system. As every employer will tell you, local degrees and certificates are worthless. Producing high-quality professionals requires much more than putting up buildings for universities, colleges and schools. Critical thinking skills make graduates useful and employable. These skills are entirely absent in the Matric, FA/FSc system and only partially developed in high-end O/A level elite private schools. Emphasis on rote memorisation and religious indoctrination has crippled minds and curtailed thinking ability.
The proof stares us in the face. Pakistan has the world’s tenth largest overseas workforce that earns the bulk of its foreign exchange. But only 1pc of migrant workers are classified as highly qualified (engineer, doctor, accountant, computer analyst, pharmacist) and 2pc highly skilled (nurse, teacher, manager). The remaining 97pc belong to different categories ranging from skilled (welder, painter, carpenter, etc) to low-skilled (agriculture workers and labourers). Pakistanis are entirely absent from the world stage of high science and engineering.
Prognosis: dangerous times lie ahead. It’s bad enough to have a ship adrift in bad weather near a rocky shore. More ominously, its quarrelling crew members are trading blows rather than worrying about shipwreck. But the far greater problem is being rudderless. Pakistan’s ultimate goals need fundamental redefinition. Until we recognise the urgent need to combat three deadly monsters — militarism, overpopulation, and skill deficit — any optimism for the longer term is unjustified.
The writer is an Islamabad-based physicist and author.