New government, new challenges

Good initiatives cannot bring change until criminal practices are allowed to continue

Translating his words to action on conserving public funds, Prime Minister (PM) Imran Khan’s adoption of a temperate lifestyle with only two supporting staff is a clear signal for the political elite around him, as well as the civil bureaucracy. Hopefully, this move will bring about some positive change. Though it is clear that more than anything else, this is a symbolic gesture.

Some meaningful decisions also emerged from the new government’s first Cabinet meeting. PM Imran Khan and his team have shown vigour to take up austerity measures that they expect will save billions over the years if implemented in letter and spirit. Abolishing of the discretionary funds and taking up the projects to the parliament for their formal approval would certainly lead to constitutional supremacy over the whims and wishes of the individuals sitting in Parliament and the Cabinet.

However, eliminating corruption will be the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government’s top priority. The decision to take up the forensic audit of the mass-transport projects in Multan, Islamabad, Peshawar and Lahore — including the Orange Line Metro Train Project — is highly appreciable for the sake of transparency and accountability. When similar projects in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) are omitted from the list, the whole endeavour becomes an exercise in political victimisation. Why is auditing mass transport projects more important than auditing all civil and military development projects initiated over the past ten years?

Regardless, the new government’s reassurances that it will retrieve money stolen from the country has given the nation hope yet again. However, economists believe that the expert selected by the new government — who has experience working with NAB — has no idea how these funds are to be retrieved under the bilateral or multilateral tax treaties signed by Pakistan. This is an observation the government should cross-check for the sake of its own credibility.

The federal government could ask that the Rangers be deployed in the country’s northern areas to combat indiscriminate deforestation. Illegal timbre must be confiscated. The toothless forest departments and district governments simply aren’t up to this task

The decision to ban the use of special aircrafts for foreign tours of top government and state dignitaries could save a significant amount for Pakistani taxpayers. Restricting everyone to the club-class for their international travel could prove instrumental in changing the social climate. The drive will become unbelievably significant and meaningful if the PM, his cabinet and parliamentarians travel in the economy-class.

The Cabinet has also decided to make our cities clean and green through a country-wide urban tree plantation drive and new sanitation projects. Malik Amin Aslam, an Advisor on climate change and the environment, has yet to come up with details about the tree plantation initiative, but we know the government intends to plant 10 billion saplings over the next five years. Malik Amin Aslam is perhaps our only politician who is a well-respected environmentalist in Pakistan and abroad.

He holds the position of global vice president with the International Union of Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN). As such, expectations are very high. However, his critics have pointed out many flaws and lacunas in his ‘Billion Tree Green Tsunami’, campaign which was said to be marred by corruption as well.

Strangely, every government, from the federal to district level, is interested in planting millions of saplings twice a year. Still, none of them have been able to offer a solution to the indiscriminate deforestation plaguing our country. Saving four million trees a year from the timber-mafia will be much more effective at combatting climate change than planting billions of new saplings. Furthermore, the timber-mafia could not function if it was not supported by the political elite and bureaucracy. Good initiatives cannot bring change until criminal practices are allowed to continue.

The present federal government has been labelled the ‘establishment’s baby’. This could be an opportunity for the federal government to ask that rangers’ be deployed in the country’s northern areas to combat indiscriminate deforestation. Illegal timbre must be confiscated by the government. The toothless forest departments and district governments simply aren’t up to this task. Only the rangers could help in recovering the hundreds of thousands of logs waiting to be transported downstream. Immediate action can stop the money from going into the pockets of the mafia. Additionally, selling the timber on higher bids in the open market could bring good money to the national exchequer.

Regarding the sanitation projects, the Cabinet decided to form a taskforce to prepare plans for a countrywide cleanliness drive. Another taskforce is to review the issue of urban housing, with particular attention to matters related to slum settlements across the country. These are pertinent decisions indeed.

The Cabinet has also vowed to complete all projects started under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). This must have brought a sigh of relief to the Chinese government and Chinese companies. Regardless, the Pakistani government needs to safeguard commitments made with China and other countries while negotiating with the US delegation due to visit on September 5. Pakistan’s interests must be given priority over demands from Washington.

The writer is an Islamabad-based policy advocacy, strategic communication and outreach expert. He can be reached at devcom.pakistan@gmail.com. He Tweets @EmmayeSyed

Published in Daily Times, August 28th 2018.