THE policy and fiscal incentives announced by the PTI government to push construction activity has two objectives. First, the ruling party is desperate to deliver on its promise of building 5m affordable housing units for low- to middle-income families. Soon to complete its second year, the government is still struggling to launch its ambitious Naya Pakistan Housing Programme. Some urban public housing schemes announced in Punjab under its banner, for example, have either been abandoned or have yet to see the light of day. Secondly, the PTI is anxious on account of the economic slowdown that set in shortly after it came to power. The stringent stabilisation policies imposed by the IMF deal had further decelerated growth before Covid-19 sent the economy spiralling into recession. The prime minister now hopes to lift the economic gloom, kick-start growth and create jobs by spurring construction activity in affordable housing. But can he?
Ideally, such incentives as a blanket amnesty on investments by end December, a price subsidy of Rs300,000 per unit on the first 100,000 low-cost homes costing up to Rs2.5m, interest rate subsidy for five-marla and 10-marla houses for five years, allocating Rs330bn for housing finance by banks, and substantial tax relief given by the centre and the provinces to developers and builders should revive projects. But that is unlikely to happen in the short term, at least not in the way the government is hoping for. Such policies have seldom worked.
For starters, the demand for housing remains depressed because of the uncertainty induced by Covid-19 as reflected in consumer surveys in recent months. On the supply side, there’s little evidence to suggest the presence of a sufficient appetite for large investments despite generous incentives. As far as mortgage financing is concerned, banks are not likely to take the credit risk unless strict foreclosure laws ensuring minimum judicial intervention are enacted to enable banks to swiftly recover their money in case of default. Even if everything goes according to script, the incentives package will add to the existing urban sprawl, benefiting affluent people and developers/investors rather than create low-cost housing for low-income segments. A better way of channelising private investment in truly affordable housing lies in the government leasing out unused state land in urban and semi-urban areas along railway tracks, highways, motorways, etc for 100 years or more at nominal rentals to developers for constructing high-rises with two- to three-bed units. Such projects should be equipped with education, health and entertainment facilities along with commercial areas. Initially, the government may encourage construction of such housing complexes for its employees up to Grade-16, lien-marking their post-retirement benefits as security to ease investors’ concerns. Once the foreclosure laws and mortgage finance industry are restructured, and an enabling environment created, this model could be replicated for the rest of the population without any financial burden on the exchequer.
The power game
AS summer drags on, there seems to be little respite for the people of Karachi where power cuts — scheduled and otherwise — are concerned. This is despite the fact that the prime minister himself has taken notice of the shambolic state of affairs, instructing his aides to take up the matter with K-Electric, the megalopolis’ sole power provider. However, despite assurances by the utility to officials, little has improved. Various political parties have also taken up cudgels against the power firm, accusing it of unscheduled and frequent load-shedding, as well as sending inflated bills to consumers. The Jamaat-i-Islami, PTI and MQM-P, amongst others, have either held protests in front of KE headquarters in the city, or taken out processions elsewhere to highlight the suffering people have to go through without electricity during the unforgiving Karachi summer. The federal energy ministry has clearly blamed KE for the mess, saying that the privatised utility is criticising the government for its own shortcomings. In a statement, the ministry said KE has not made the requisite investment in its distribution system, which is why it is not able to take extra power available on the national grid. For its part, KE has at times complained of a shortage of furnace oil, at others of short supply from the national grid.
For the common citizen, these technicalities matter little when many pay their power bill on time every month, yet do not get uninterrupted electricity supply, especially during the gruelling summer months. Moreover, with thousands of people self-isolating at home due to Covid-19, the issue assumes a more acute dimension. During protests, some parties have called for the re-nationalisation of KE; indeed, the federal planning minister said as much while meeting KE officials over the weekend, telling them the government could take control of the firm if it failed to get its act together. This is a debatable proposition, as the performance of government power companies in other parts of Sindh — Hesco, Sepco — is also far from exemplary. What is needed is clear communication between the state and KE focusing on the point that citizens must get what they pay for: uninterrupted power supply. If emergencies necessitate load-shedding, it must be kept to a bare minimum and publicised in advance. Otherwise, there is merit in the argument of opening up Karachi’s power distribution sector to more than one provider.
Killing the virus
AFTER a considerable lull, polio eradication efforts will once again resume in Pakistan. Before the novel coronavirus pandemic gripped the world and diverted much of its attention and resources, Pakistan had been witnessing a spike in the total number of new polio cases. While the figure had been reduced to eight in 2017, then going up to 12 in 2018, 147 new cases were tallied at the end of 2019, and the health ministry was forced to admit a resurgence of a previously eliminated strain of the crippling virus. Even as all polio eradication activities had been halted in March 2020, barring surveillance, and efforts were redirected to support the battle against the novel coronavirus, the number of polio cases kept increasing. Seven months into 2020, around 60 cases have already been reported across the country, in all the provinces. The polio eradication programme is now set to resume on July 20, and in certain districts, door-to-door campaigns will incorporate awareness about the Covid-19 pandemic, so that families can better protect themselves from the infection and prevent the virus from spreading within their communities. As with polio eradication efforts, misinformation, disinformation and outright lies have surrounded the response to the novel coronavirus, and as new information comes to light with each passing week, it is important for the public to stay updated, follow protocols by health experts, and be aware of the risks. Of course, it is expected that all SOPs will be followed by the programme when the vaccinators pick up where they left off.
We may not yet have a vaccine against Covid-19, but a vaccine against poliomyelitis has existed since the 1950s. Its creator famously refused to patent it, saying ‘the people’ owned the patent. But beyond vaccination, the spread of many diseases, including Covid-19 and polio, has in some part been attributed to poor hygiene and sanitary conditions, and the inaccessibility of clean water. This will also need to be addressed.