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The Express Tribune Editorial 11 January 2020

Ballooning debt


Despite all the pain being inflicted by austerity programmes and budget cuts caused by the federal government’s debt reduction efforts, public debt is still increasing at a double-digit pace, having risen to Rs32.1 trillion by the end of November 2019. This means a Rs5.7 trillion increase — or more than 21 per cent — over the same time a year earlier. Economists are blaming it on the incumbent government’s failure to enhance revenues to meet expenditures.
In February 2019, Prime Minister Imran Khan vowed to bring the public debt below Rs20 trillion. But since he became prime minister and the PTI started running things last August, the federal government has already added Rs7.5 trillion to the public debt. Clearly, Prime Minister Imran likes a challenge.
The general government debt, including guarantees and IMF borrowing, rose to 88 per cent of GDP by the end of the previous fiscal year, according to a recent IMF report. That report blames the increase in debt on fiscal slippages, exchange rate depreciation, and the government’s decision to increase its cash deposits to cushion against potentially unfavourable market conditions. In a statement issued on Wednesday, the finance ministry said that Rs3.7 trillion out of the total increase was on account of budget deficit financing. Meanwhile, the State Bank of Pakistan is under pressure to cut the policy rate, which is 5.75 per cent higher than the core inflation rate of 7.5 per cent, with critics citing its impact on the increasing cost of debt servicing.
In fact, debt servicing alone is projected to cost Rs3.2 trillion for the ongoing fiscal year, or 60 per cent of the FBR’s revised target for this year. Coupled with reports that the FBR’s revenues are not growing at the pace desired by the IMF or even to help reduce debt growth, FBR Chairman Shabbar Zaidi is under immense pressure to bring something to the table that works. Unfortunately, the only thing that has been forthcoming was a leave application — the FBR chief is on leave for two-week for medical reasons.


Infinite greed


Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP) is supposed to cater to families with a monthly income of around Rs5,000. The cash stipend of Rs1,666 a month doled out under the cash transfer programme is just good enough for a family of five to six individuals to purchase wheat flour for 20 to 25 days. The programme is thus meant for the poorest of the poor in the country. Shockingly though, about eight hundred thousand, or nearly 15 per cent, of the five million beneficiaries of the programme belonged to families with a decent socio-economic status until it was detected, last month, by the incumbent government.
The list of the BISP beneficiaries included those who themselves or their spouses have travelled abroad; have had their passports processed through an executive centre; and are the owners of a motor vehicle. And while those employed by the Government of Pakistan or any government-affiliated agency or those drawing a pension from the government are not eligible for cash support under the programme, the BISP beneficiaries enjoy the proud privilege of having high-ranking government officers in their midst. Just a day before yesterday, the National Assembly was informed by a federal minister that several Sindh government officers of grades 17, 18, 19 and even 20 had been registered as BISP beneficiaries.
It’s the height of greed that even those enjoying the status of gazetted officers and drawing no less than a six-figure salary are ready to do whatever good or bad they can to prove their eligibility to grab any doles. Those who don’t hesitate in queuing up for the meager sums meant for people with low or no income and steal their rights don’t deserve to go unpunished. The PTI government — under the supervision of BISP Chairperson and PM’s Special Assistant Dr Sania Nishtar — has taken a commendable step to rid the country’s largest social safety programme of undeserving members by employing a methodology that will hopefully continue to keep a check


Zainab Alert Bill

Like most plans meant to benefit the public, the Zainab Alert, Recovery and Response Bill too is moving at a glacial speed. After two years, only the National Assembly has approved the bill and now it will need the approval of the Senate to become law. A highly disappointing aspect of the bill, according to media reports, is that the measures introduced in the bill will only extend to the Islamabad Capital Territory. Experts say since the bill involves the Pakistan Penal Code and the CrPC, it will have to be passed by the provincial assemblies in order to be implemented in the provinces.
People had much expectation from the proposed bill with regard to curbing the rising trend of child sexual abuse in the country but their expectations are meeting with disappointment because of the delay. Nine-year-old Zainab Ansari was raped and murdered in Kasur in Jan 2018. The horrifying incident had sparked outrage and protests all over the country; riots had broken out in Kasur in which two people were killed. A court sentenced her murderer and rapist, Imran Ali, to death. He was hanged in October of the same year.
In Aug 2019, a parliamentary panel deferred the passage of the bill with directions to the government to rationalise the “harsh” punishment proposed for sexual assault against children. Members had differed over rigorous punishment until death for sexual assault. Under the bill passed on Jan 9, the maximum punishment for child sexual abuse will be life imprisonment with a fine of one million rupees while the minimum punishment will be 10 years. A helpline will be established to report missing children and an agency for issuing an alert for missing children will also be set up. The bill proposes action against police officials who cause unnecessary delay in investigating such cases. Those who fail to respond to the alert within two hours could also face action.
Slow and steady wins the race. This justifies the delay, however.
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