It seems many cabinet members are not on the same page as the prime minister about following the much-hyped austerity plan that was announced in February. The plan was to be primarily followed by the ministers, advisers, special assistants, and bureaucrats to cut down on expenses and give a breather to the national exchequer. This is nothing unusual, as many countries, including several developed nations, introduce austerity policies in times of economic uncertainty to cut down on expenses and strengthen reserves. We have examples of countries like Greece, Spain, the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Italy that have enforced austerity before us, and that too for years, and achieved positive results.
Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif also announced measures to reduce government expenses at a time when the country’s reserves were depleting. Addressing a press conference, PM Sharif had urged his ministers and advisers to forgo their salaries, stop using luxury vehicles, and travel in economy class to save the government Rs200 billion annually. However, the prime minister’s cabinet colleagues and other senior officers are giving the least importance to the austerity policy. The issue was raised at a meeting of the monitoring committee on the implementation of austerity measures, which was presided over by Finance Minister Ishaq Dar. Education Minister Rana Tanveer Hussain, Law Minister Azam Nazeer Tarar, Adviser to Prime Minister on Kashmir Affairs and Gilgit-Baltistan Qamar Zaman Kaira and Special Assistant on Finance Tariq Bajwa were among the participants of the meeting.
The meeting was informed that more than half of the luxury vehicles provided to cabinet members, parliamentary secretaries and standing committees’ chairpersons were still in use and had not been returned to the Cabinet Division. Besides, many bureaucrats were still using official sport utility vehicles and sedan cars. The meeting was informed that out of 30 luxury vehicles, 14 had been returned while 16 were still in use. The monitoring committee expressed its concern over the failure to return the luxury vehicles and directed the Cabinet Division to get back the vehicles. The meeting also called on the law ministry to “approach the superior judiciary, suggesting the implementation of austerity measures in the judiciary, and approach the Senate chairman and National Assembly speaker regarding the use of teleconferences for all meetings to save time and expenditure”. It was also decided to observe new office timings from 7:30am to 2:30pm and till 12:30pm on Friday. These timings would be implemented from the first of Ramazan and will continue in the summer as well.
Many analysts had predicted that these austerity measures would not make a difference. How effectively they would be implemented was anyone’s guess. Nations that adopt austerity plans despite opposition from their citizens do so strictly, which is why they bear fruit. We need long-term measures, whether there is a financial crisis or not, and we need to let go of unnecessary expenses and adopt simplicity. As of today, Pakistan can no longer afford the luxury.