Sarfaraz Khan, a low-paid sanitary worker, may have to contribute more to the exchequer in case of expected upward revision of taxes, but he has little sway to influence the shaping of next year’s budget of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government. “There is talk in the newspapers and television, saying the government is imposing more taxes on us, but I don’t know where I can make a difference in terms of letting the rulers know my problems,” explained Khan, when asked about his role in the current budget making process.

In many developed and developing countries, pre-budget consultations with stakeholders and public debates are organized to incorporate the citizens’ voice in budget proposals. However, it does not happen here, neither at the national nor provincial level. Parliament and for that matter the provincial assembly is the custodian of public trust and funds so it has a greater responsibility to undertake when it comes to the budget-making process. Without reflecting the will of the people and taking them into confidence about the budget-making process, it would be impossible to build trust among the public and parliament

In a surprising and somewhat unexpected move, a senior budget maker of the Ministry of Finance announced that the federal government has decided to enlarge the scope of budget consultation process and all political parties including opposition parties represented in the parliament would be consulted on federal budget 2012-13. It was made to appear that consultation with all parties represented in Parliament would help reduce the trade gap.

It was also informed that National Assembly has already passed the resolution for presenting budget strategy paper in the national assembly in the month of March so as to obtain the parliamentarians guidance and recommendations on the budget. A sub-committee of the Standing Committee on Rules of Procedure and Privileges met in the parliament house with members of the National Assembly. The meeting considered the proposal relating to addition of sub-rule (6) in rule 201 of the Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business in the National Assembly 2007 as moved by Anusha Rehman Khan Advocate MNA. It was observed in the meeting that although parliament is considered as supreme but factually it’s role in budget making is negligible. Majority of the members of the parliament are not given an opportunity to involve themselves in budget making process, only few parliamentarians actually know what is written in the budget books and majority discusses political issues during budget debate in the parliament house. Parliament should not be used a rubber stamp for approval of the budget and it’s due role should be ensured in budget making process by involving all political parties and parliamentarians to give their suggestions in budget and their voice should be heard before finalizing budget. The convener recommended that a special Pre-Budget Session of the national assembly should be convened for a month period in March for holding pre-budget debate so that all the political parties irrespective if they are in the government or in opposition could give their suggestions before finalization of the budget. Government should place it’s Budget Strategy Paper-1 in this special session to inform the parliamentarians the priorities set by the government for next fiscal year so that they could contribute in developing a meaningful document. The document would become meaningful only if exports were to rise and the trade gap narrowed. According to provisional figures of external trade issued by the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics, Pakistan’s balance of trade widened to $16.095 billion due to rapidly falling exports. Wizards in the Ministry of Finance and the FBR are alarmed to see that there has been a decline in the country’s traditional items, such as value added textiles, rice, leather and leather garments. Industry leaders blame government policies for crippling exports by creating an acute shortage in utilities, such as power, gas and water to the country’s industrial sector.

It is pathetic that currently most of the Ministries, particularly the Ministry of Commerce and the Ministry of Textile Industries are not functioning properly. They lack interest in issues confronting the export trade The decline in Pakistan’s exports are easy to understand. The industry is not being given power and gas that it needs and has to face the worst kind of law and order. The situation is worsened when decisions are not taken on merit and politically motivate plans are put into operation. Providing gas to villages may get the government some votes, but it will not help the trade gap. Parliamentarians from nearly all major political parties expressed their dissatisfaction with the current drafting process of the federal budget, expected to touch Rs3.8 trillion for fiscal year 2012. Concerns about the dominance of the civil service in drafting the federal budget were echoed even by members of the treasury benches. Senator Raza Rabbani of the Pakistan Peoples Party called for a paradigm shift in the budget-making process, suggesting that the focus shift towards the parliamentary finance committees, with “inclusive input of civil service.” Ahsan Iqbal of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), meanwhile, believes the civil service does not share vital information with parliament when it comes to economic matters, highlighting as an example the country’s relationship with the International Monetary Fund, which is managed almost entirely by the bureaucracy.

In all Parliamentary democracies, the budget draft is debated in parliament. One member of our National Assembly complained that “Despite being a member of the parliamentary finance committee, I receive no details about the 2012 budget, when trillion of rupees in spending are going to be presented in parliament next month.” However, analysts said that political parties often do not have detailed policy agendas on economic matters, which often means that legislators cannot meaningfully contribute to the national debate on fiscal policy. It would be educative to reproduce some of the observations made by Dr. Abdul Hafeez Sheikh who is currently in Washington for the annual IMF meetings.

 “There was a time when I used to evaluate Pakistan and I thought the best way for it to really develop is to relocate. I used to think that the best place for us to take Pakistan would be somewhere between Italy and Switzerland,” Hafeez Shaikh said in jest.

“Now I’ve changed my mind because the parts that I thought we should be located in (Europe) aren’t doing that great in terms of growth and where we are is the most dynamic part of the world,” he said. “So I think we should stay there, we should work and be good neighbors with each other,” Shaikh, who was visiting Washington for the annual World Bank/IMF spring meetings, said at the Brookings Institution think-tank. The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, an eight-nation bloc, has repeatedly pledged to boost economic ties but such promises have made little headway amid the constant friction between India and Pakistan. But Shaikh said that the new trade initiative enjoyed firm support of both business and political leaders. “It reflects considerable thinking and it shows the economic merit that’s there,” he said. “So I personally feel quite optimistic that this is an area where the payoffs are there. Pakistan is faced with persistent economic concerns amid a shaky supply of electricity, a weak revenue base, high external debt and security concerns that have scared off some foreign investors. The finance Minister however, painted an upbeat picture and said that Pakistan’s economy would grow this year at 4% – above IMF forecasts and well up from 2.4% last year – due to solid crop yields and a rebound in manufacturing.

n    The writer is a retired secretary of the Government of Pakistan.