Feisal Naqvi

Penny Wise, Pound Foolish

In Uncategorized on April 1, 2008 at 5:50 am

The people of Pakistan do not elect representatives or employ civil servants to suffer on their behalf. Instead, we vote for people so that they can make intelligent, informed choices about matters of national interest

In his first speech as prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gillani introduced a number of austerity measures. So, the budget of Prime Minister House is going to be cut by 40 percent; all ministers will henceforth travel economy plus on domestic flights, rather than business class; and, no minister will travel in a car of more than 1600 cc.

Frankly, my dear, I couldn’t give a damn.

Actually, I do. This pseudo-austerity is not only irritating but counter-productive. And it is high time we got past our neuroses in this regard.

This hypocritical obsession with ostensible cost-cutting is irritating because it serves no useful purpose. In fact, it is harmful because it reinforces the notion that instead of being normal humans, our elected representatives, judges and bureaucrats should all be exemplars of the human race, some mystical combination between Mother Theresa and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.

Do such people really exist? Yes, they do. Do some of them work for the Government of Pakistan. Yes, they do. The famous Masood Khaddarposh was one. Justice Cornelius was another. And Justice Jawad Khawaja was most certainly a person who could not give a rodent’s backside about the trappings of his office.

OK, but not every person wants to be a Khaddarposh. Some people want to be Armaniposh. And I think they should be.

Pakistan is not a poor country. It has lots of people who are poor but that is not the same thing. More importantly, to the extent we have lots of poor people in this country, they will only stop being poor if the government is run by smart people who make smart choices about public policies.

Newflash No. 1: Smart people like to be paid for being smart (unless they are patriotic heroes).

Newsflash No. 2. Patriotic heroes are in short supply.

Newsflash No. 3: It costs a lot less to pay for a few nice suits than it does to fix the mistakes made by dumb people.

The clearest example I can give of the country being hurt by decisions which were not “snart” (to use my seven-year old son’s vocabulary) was WAPDA’s decision (back in 2002) to not buy hydel energy at 4 c/kwh on the basis that the hydel developers were asking for too much. This was so even though WAPDA’s own marginal cost of electricity was 6.5 c/kwh.

Let me put the above point in plain English.

Back in 2002, every additional unit of electricity cost WAPDA 6.5 cents because that is what the IPPs charged. At that time, there were other people who wanted to build dams and sell electricity to WAPDA for less than 6.5 cents/unit. In fact, they were only asking for 4 cents/unit. WAPDA refused to buy electricity from these hydel developers on the basis that they were asking for too much. As a consequence, WAPDA continued (and continues) to buy today electricity from the IPPs for a lot more than 4c/unit.

Some day, dictionaries will mention this episode as an illustration of the phrase: to cut off one’s nose to spite one’s face. In the meantime, we are suffering the consequences.

Please note that as a general rule, I have great respect for bureaucrats, especially senior ones. All I am saying is that they should be paid what they deserve, which is to say salaries competitive with the private sector. Judges should get paid what the top lawyers make. And Parliamentarians should get paid well too.

The other point is that these so-called austerity measures save nothing. The amount of money saved by sending cabinet members in economy plus is miniscule, especially as those same cabinet members will continue to travel business class on international flights. And how much money are we actually going to save by serving one dish less at state functions?

The people of Pakistan do not elect representatives or employ civil servants to suffer on their behalf. Instead, we vote for people (and hire bright young DMG chaps) so that they can make intelligent, informed choices about matters of national interest. If we refuse to pay them competitive wages, our chances of getting the best possible people are considerably reduced. This is not rocket science: Hazrat Ali (RA) wrote 14 centuries ago that judges should be paid well!

So go ahead, Mr Prime Minister. Use that Mercedes. Travel in your private jet. Wear Armani suits. Just make sure you get the big things right.

The writer is an advocate and can be reached at laalshah@gmail.com


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