Budget in an election year
THE budget betrays much about the priorities and style of a government. Since the money being spent is the taxpayers’ it is incumbent on their rulers to spend it responsibly and honestly.
A cursory look at the Sindh budget 2012-13 reveals much about our elected government’s political designs in an election year. It is not really strange if a government that has not shown much concern for the economic hardships of the masses should suddenly adopt policies that try to appease the electorate. However, when the allocations have an extraordinary pattern it is time to be sceptical and ask a few questions.
Normally, one holding the purse-strings is under a lot of pulls and pressure from competing demands, especially if resources are scarce. Hence it is not pure economics that determines budget priorities. If the government is weak politically, morally bankrupt and corrupt, expediency can be expected to take over. If a country is under a heavy debt load the foreign aid-givers also have a say in deciding how much is to be spent where and how as the economy tends to be donor-driven.
A cursory glance at the Sindh budget 2012-13 is enough to establish that the forthcoming elections have been the key factor in determining how the allocations are to be made. It is not the conventional practice of governments being very generous towards the voters before polls to win votes. It appears to be a case of the money being used to pave the way for an electoral victory by oiling the election machinery. This is a clear case of a budget leaving a lot of scope for financial manipulation to tilt the election process in favour of the ruling party.
Of the total current revenue expenditure of the province of Rs315.3bn, a huge chunk totalling Rs196.1bn (62 per cent) will be spent on only two heads. They are education (Rs99.3bn) and general public services — which in the good old days was called administration — (Rs96.8bn).
The other sectors which deserved better treatment have been left with the meagre amount of Rs119.2bn. True resources are scarce but shouldn’t the distribution have been more equitable? Paradoxically, the two highest paid heads (see the budget document titled Salient Features of Budget 2012-13) are also the worst performing. The third head, public order and safety affairs with an allocation of Rs47.1bn is no better. A damning testimony to its performance is the fact that some 1,340 people have been killed in Karachi since January 2012.
What is intriguing about the allocations under the two favoured heads is that some sub-sectors received massive increases which are not easy to explain.
Take education that receives the lion’s share. In the current revenue budget it registers a hefty rise of 76 per cent over last year. The finance minister of Sindh describes education of the youth as “the foundation of every state”. That is why he said the incoming year’s allocations for education will be six times the allocation of 2007-8, the year his government assumed office.
Will this massive pouring of resources into the education sector without creating the absorptive capacity, the monitoring machinery and an honest recruitment policy based on merit bring about any change? It is tragic that this foundation that the finance minister spoke about is being eroded. The Annual State of Education Report 2011 establishes that Sindh is the worst in the country in terms of the learning outcomes of children.
The question to be asked is if the quality and quantity of education in Sindh has not grown proportionately what was the need to suddenly increase the education budget by Rs43.1bn? There is a method in this madness.
Stories of incompetency and corruption in the education department of Sindh are legion. Who has not heard of appointments being made on the basis of party loyalties with the underpinning of corruption? In this set-up when schools serve as polling centres with their staff acting as returning officers, who stands to gain? In our political terminology this is not even identified as ‘rigging’. If you have been thinking there has been a change of heart and the government has developed a new love for the children of Sindh and their education then please rethink.
Mercifully, the budget for the administration has been scaled down by 22 per cent. But before you heave a big sigh of relief just look at the fine print showing the sub-heads. Some receive hefty increases which are intriguing. Sindh already has a cabinet of 68 (52 ministers, 16 advisers) who officially drew Rs374.7m from the exchequer in 2011-12. Now the amount earmarked for the ministers and special assistants/advisers has shot up to Rs550.1m. They should not be asking for higher salaries for their poor performance when the people are victims of the inflation and unemployment slapped on them.
Please wait. We have to see if this amount has not been kept aside for making friends and influencing people in an election year. Party deals and electoral arrangements require the rulers to promise political rewards to rivals to neutralise them. Promises of ministerial portfolios are traditionally used for this purpose. Who cares if a politician is not qualified for a coveted post? It is his political weight and the number of votes he can bring that really make him a good choice for the powers-that-be. To avoid an uncomfortable contingency the provision for ‘others’ (unforeseen) expenditures shows a jump from Rs25.5m in 2011-12 to Rs35m in 2012-13 (37 per cent).