As Pakistan heads into another election year, the challenges facing the nation have never seemed as insurmountable as they are today. On every front, Pakistan is being battered by weak governance, lack of planning and no vision. Add corruption and a creaking infrastructure to the toxic mix and the road to recovery seems blocked. The ruling Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) has spent almost its entire term racking up the federal debt, failed to establish fiscal sanity, remained unable to introduce meaningful tax reforms, curb corruption or even stanch the unabated hemorrhage of money from State Owned Enterprises (SOEs) like Pakistan International Airlines among others. In 2011, while in opposition during the rule of the Pakistan Peoples Party, the PML-N had given the PPP government only 45 days to introduce economic reforms. In its own four and a half years in office, the PML-N has failed to accomplish what it had demanded the PPP to complete in 45 days. Direct taxation remains abysmally low, indirect taxes continue to hit people who can least afford them and government spending has been directed towards trains and buses rather than in critical areas such as run-of-the-river dams.
If elections are held on schedule, which seems likely for the time being barring any major disaster, the PML-N will complete its tenure and head into the upcoming election as political martyrs. But will the voters buy into the same mantra again and again? In March this year, the ruling party is expected to capture a majority in the Senate, giving the party an undeniable advantage in the general election expected in May. So what should the voters be focusing on? The opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf would have us believe that uprooting corruption is the panacea to all that ails Pakistan. And there is substantial validity to the argument. Billions of rupees are lost to corruption every year, which could have been used to upgrade basic facilities across the country. The power sector has only shown minimal improvement in Pakistan’s urban areas. But Pakistan’s industries remain trapped in rising costs and frequent power cuts. Many units that collapsed over the past decade have simply not reopened.
With a massive youth bulge of over 64 per cent, Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif may have won brownie points with the recipients of government laptops, but laptops alone do not create jobs or improve the quality of education.
Fossilised Pakistani colleges and universities are not turning out scholars empowered with the tools to change the world. They churn out mediocre graduates who struggle to find jobs in a shrinking economy.
But the greatest threat to Pakistan’s future lies in an area where the government has shown almost no interest at all. Water. A government organisation, the Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR), in September last year, warned that Pakistan was heading towards a drought and will approach “absolute water scarcity” by 2025. The report further indicated that Pakistan has had plenty of notice of this looming, potentially crippling crisis since 1990 when it first touched the “water stress line.” By 2005, we crossed the “water scarcity line” and are now facing a catastrophe of endemic proportions. National and international experts have warned that absolute water scarcity would entail a colossal threat to food security, economic growth and health. Agriculture and livestock, the lynchpin of our economy, will be the first to collapse. Given that our health sector is already under massive strain, absolute water scarcity will trigger a collapse of the public health care system, as people succumb to malnutrition and disease caused by dwindling contaminated water supplies.
Where then, is the national outcry? Where are the task forces to address the impending crisis? The media seems to have selected its role as the purveyor of sensationalism masquerading as news. Puerile investigative committees, the bane of Pakistani politics, will not help after the damage is done. We need a national action plan on water. We need political will and wisdom to avert the collapse of the State. And we need it now. Let absolute water scarcity be the platform which will determine the outcome of the general election this year. Any political party that does not have the answers and the drive to commit all our resources to this single issue has no business running the government at any level.