The prevailing system of governance in Pakistan undeniably is both exploitative and oppressive. It is exploitative because it unduly rewards the elite with excessive economic benefits at the expense of the poor in stark contrast with the injunctions of Islam and the principles of welfare state, which call for the redistribution of wealth from the rich to the poor. It is oppressive because it denies justice to the weak against the criminal excesses of the powerful in the society who can virtually get away with murder. The elite of the society including especially senior politicians, high ranking officers of the civilian bureaucracy and armed forces, feudal landlords, and dishonest and unscrupulous officials of the judiciary are collectively responsible for this unhappy state of affairs. The need of the hour is for urgent policy measures to rectify the situation and ensure that Pakistan turns into an Islamic welfare state in its true sense where economic exploitation and social oppression of the poor and the weak come to an end, enabling them to lead their lives with dignity, develop their God-given talents, and realize their potential.
Let us examine the state of economic and social justice in Pakistan. According to the Economic Survey of Pakistan for 2017-18, about 24.3% of the people lived below the poverty line defined as income of Rs.3030 per month in 2015-16. However, the percentage of people living below the poverty line would increase to 60% if it is defined as income of $60 or Rs.7200 per month. This is shameful to say the least. Besides low level of development, extreme inequalities of income and wealth in Pakistan are responsible for this dismal state of affairs. A few examples would help drive home this point. The total maximum salary of an officer in BPS-22, the highest grade in the Pakistan government service, is reportedly around Rs.300,000 per month including basic salary, allowances, and other perks and privileges. This is almost 18 times the monthly average income of Rs.16400 in Pakistan assuming that its GDP per capita is $1640. The total monthly salary of a High Court or Supreme Court judge including basic salary, allowances, perks and privileges reportedly varies from 80 to 100 times the monthly average income in Pakistan. By way of comparison, the annual salary of a judge of the American Supreme Court is reported to be US$244,000, which is just four times the GDP per capita in the US amounting to US$60,000.
There are also various surreptitious ways in which the elite in Pakistan are enriching themselves at the expense of the poor and the downtrodden. The allotment of residential, commercial, and agricultural plots to senior civil, military and judicial officers out of the state land, which is the asset of the people of Pakistan, at throwaway prices is an example of the blatant manner in which they are robbing the nation for their personal benefits. In a welfare state, redistribution of wealth is from the rich to the poor. Pakistan is one of those rare countries where the reverse is the norm. Every allotment of a one-kanal plot of state land in a posh area in Islamabad, Lahore or Karachi to a senior civil, judicial or military officer means that roughly an amount of Rs.20 million has been taken out of the pockets of the poor people of the country for the benefit of the rich and the powerful. In this manner, over the past few decades hundreds of billions of rupees have been looted from the nation by the powerful sections of our society. In my view, this is legalized corruption, that is, a corrupt or unfair practice which has been given the cover of laws and rules.
The situation becomes even more disturbing if one takes into account the sad reality that the incidence of taxes is mostly on the less well-to-do classes instead of the rich. Out of the total expected tax revenues of Rs.4435 billion in the budget for 2018-19, indirect taxes, which are regressive in nature with greater incidence on the relatively less well-to-do sections of the society, would amount to Rs.2700 billion or about 61% of the expected total tax revenues. So the powerful sections of the society are not only robbing the nation directly and surreptitiously, they are also making the weak and the poor carry most of the burden of payment of taxes.
As a result of Pakistan’s under-development which is reflected in the extremely low level of its per capita income ($1640), and corrupt and unfair practices leading to vast inequalities of income and wealth, about 60% of its people are living below the poverty line, as pointed out earlier. According to the UN Human Development Report, Pakistan is ranked at No. 147 out of 188 countries, with human development index of 0.550, which is below that of India and even Bangladesh. We spend only 2.2% of our GDP on education as against the UNESCO recommended norm of 4% and much higher corresponding figures for rapidly developing countries like South Korea. Our national expenditure on health is only 0.9% of our GDP. The net result is that we are turning into a nation of illiterate and semi-literate people with stunted physical and intellectual growth.
The responsibility for the absence of economic and social justice lies collectively with Pakistan’s elite or ruling classes including especially senior politicians, high ranking officers of Pakistan’s civilian bureaucracy, armed forces and judiciary, and feudal landlords. Successive governments and parliaments in the country have failed to promulgate laws and adopt policy measures to ensure economic and social justice to the common man in the country. VIP culture and discriminatory practices in the application of law have further aggravated the climate of injustice from which the masses continue to suffer. Unfortunately, the performance of our law enforcement authorities, accountability institutions, and judiciary, especially at the lower levels, leaves a lot to be desired. In particular, the police is in need of radical reforms to make it efficient and people-friendly in the performance of its duties to enforce laws and check criminal activities.
As for the judiciary, one cannot but admire the energy and dedication with which the incumbent Chief Justice of Pakistan is trying to ensure the protection of fundamental rights as enshrined in the constitution and check incidents of bad governance and corruption in various institutions of state. This is not to claim, however, that everything is in perfect shape in the judiciary. In fact, the judiciary, which is the ultimate authority responsible for dispensing justice, itself is badly in need of reforms to ensure that justice is delivered to plaintiffs in an impartial, apolitical, speedy, and fair manner. In particular, the working of lower level judiciary suffers from reports of rampant corruption and inefficiency. There are frequent reports that judges at lower levels fail to apply their mind or indulge in corrupt practices while issuing legally unjustified stay orders resulting in avoidable prolonged litigation and hardship to those affected adversely by them.
The situation is much better in the case of the superior judiciary but there is room for improvement here also. For example, some Pakistani jurists have publicly called for the formulation of objective and precise criteria for action by the Supreme Court under Article 184(3) of the Constitution to minimize the elements of uncertainty, arbitrariness, and selectivity in its application. In particular, the Supreme Court needs to thrash out the seven questions raised by Justice Faez Isa on the subject in the disqualification case of Sheikh Rasheed to ensure greater clarity, certainty and consistency in its working and verdicts.
The writer is a retired ambassador and the president of the Lahore Council for World Affairs.