Word to the wise —Shaukat Qadir

There is little doubt that we are currently dependent on the United States, but any self-respecting nation would like to pursue policies that lead to genuine independence over time

Last week, I looked at the policy challenges facing newly elected President Asif Ali Zardari, particularly terrorism, corruption and the constitutional and politico-legal issues facing the country. However, other critical areas need attention as well: the economy; infrastructure, especially water and power; and foreign policy.

There are some obvious measures that can be taken on the economic front, and it does not require in-depth knowledge of economics to see what they are.

Except for the majority of extremely poor families, about two million families in Pakistan have never bought fruits in units. It is bought by the dozen or by the kilo, sometimes even in hundreds. Each year, tonnes of different types of fruit are wasted as families purchase more than they can consume and the fruit rots. At the height of their price last year, oranges reached Rs 60 per dozen, or Rs 5 per unit. If we could export our fruit only as far as the Far East — where in Singapore, each unit of orange sells for $1, as do guavas, peaches, mangos etc — we could mint money.

The same applies to vegetables. Those who have travelled the world will testify that ours are usually the tastiest fruits and vegetables in the market. This may result in a domestic fruit shortage, but supply will soon catch up and, if it results in lower prices for other edibles, we can survive.

We need a liberal export policy that provides transparency and infrastructural support — like packing material and arrangements to ship by air.

The Benazir Income Support Programme for families may have political dividends. However, it will not succeed as a genuine poverty alleviation programme. Another possible model is that of Nobel Laureate Dr Yunus’ Grameen Bank in Bangladesh. Dr Yunus has revolutionised banking by offering small loans to the extremely poor without collateral. It is estimated that his bank has supported over two million families in attaining economic self-sufficiency. It is a project worth examining if we wish to have a genuine poverty alleviation programme.

Instead of the leasing programmes introduced by Mr Shaukat Aziz’s government, which added hundreds of thousands of cars to overcrowded roads, the government could try coming up with efficient, clean, and affordable public transport systems for all major cities. As fuel prices spiral, millions of middle, lower-middle, and lower-class individuals would prefer public transport to their own car or motorcycle. It could save the country billions of dollars in oil imports.

Power and water shortages and the issue of large dams are also important. The president would be wise not to fall into the trap of mega-projects. A number of small dams that total the same capacity as one large dam will cost much less than a large dam, and each can be constructed simultaneously in far less time. Mangla Dam, which has lost a large percentage of its storage capacity due to silting (and de-silting is unaffordable) should serve as a lesson.

Smaller dams will be easier to maintain and de-silt periodically, without an appreciable reduction in our water storage or electricity generation capacity. What is more, small dams are environment friendly. Also, a large number of dams will diversify the sources of electricity generation, reducing the radius of its supply and thus reducing line wastage.

Construction of hundreds of mini-dams in our tribal areas, where there is little or no water, is recommended. They should be sited at catchments to store rainwater, provide potable drinking water as well as water for the poor to cultivate their small holdings.

In Balochistan, hundreds of desalinisation plants can be set up along the coastline. These plants will provide employment. Salt extracted from them will provide income and the desalinated water will help irrigate the coastline. Over a period of time, this might encourage migration to, rather than out of, Balochistan.

There is little doubt that we are currently dependent on the United States, but any self-respecting nation would like to pursue policies that lead to genuine independence over time. China has been our friend over the years, but it has its own interests that we must find ways to adapt to. If Urumqi in western China can be connected to Gwadar — a project already under study — not only will commerce from Urumqi be able to avail this facility, but also the bulk of Central Asia. This will also forge a strategic link further cementing Pak-China relations.

There is again an indigenous uprising in Indian-held Kashmir, which has given rise to a wave of sympathy for Kashmiris all over India. Far from exploiting this, we must assist India in finding a just and acceptable solution to their problem, so as to further improve relations with India. India is energy-starved and dependant on us for accessing cheap energy overland. An effort in this direction can cement relations permanently. But all this also depends on a peaceful Balochistan.

Globalisation is another means of exploiting underdeveloped countries. The only way to bring ourselves at par with the developed world is to create regional power centres in which countries complement and supplement each other to gain collective strength for equality. Perhaps a regional power structure, including China, India, Iran, and Pakistan, with Afghanistan joining in at a later stage, is worth working towards over the next few years.

Finally, the president must not forget that he is where he is through the strength of the people. If the US was forced to accept the ouster of Pervez Musharraf, and permit the PPP to have its way, it was only because the people came out to vote for it. And they will not do so again if the PPP does not meet their expectations.

Mr Zardari is now at the pinnacle, and has the option of acting as he did in the past; indeed, most are expecting him to. However, as a patriot and a democrat, I can only hope that he will do the unexpected and surprise us!

The author is a retired brigadier. He is also former vice president and founder of the Islamabad Policy Research Institute (IPRI)

Source: Daily Times, 20/9/2008


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