Points to Ponder January 2024

Unabating Debt

With the start of a new year, the situation in the country sees no real change in terms of economic stability. It is unfortunate that in 75 years, it has gone to the IMF 23 times for financial bailout programs. The State Bank of Pakistan has received the second tranche of $700 million, which is approximately equivalent to SDR 528 million. The last tranche of $1.2 billion under the $3 billion Standby Agreement is expected in March 2024.

Data on Pakistan’s borrowing record is stark testimony to its achievements in being able to pull itself out of debt on a path to self-reliance and economic stability: it ranks 5th in outstanding debt at $7.4 billion. Other countries before Pakistan are Argentina, Egypt, Ukraine, and Ecuador. According to Pakistan’s Economic Affairs Division (EAD) data, the country seems to be functioning on borrowed money; it has borrowed $5.968 billion from multiple financing sources during the first half (July-December) of the current fiscal year 2023-24 compared to $5.595 billion borrowed during the same period of 2022-23. According to news reports, Pakistan has received $1.2 billion as the first tranche of the $3 billion Stand-By Arrangement (SBA) in July 2023, and $1 billion from the UAE. If these amounts are added to the total financial inflows, a total of $8.168 billion during the first half of the current fiscal year (FY).

In the fiscal year 2023, Pakistan purchased $894 million, accompanied by charges and interest payments totaling $776 million and $325.8 million, respectively. According to the IMF, an IMF loan is disbursed by the borrower’s purchase of foreign currency assets from the IMF with its own currency. Repayment of the loan is achieved by the borrower’s repurchase of its currency from the IMF with foreign currency. In 2022, Pakistan’s purchase from the IMF had been $1.64 billion, which is testimony to its dependence on the IMF. It is noteworthy that the IMF has downward revised real GDP growth to 2% from 2.5% for the ongoing FY.

Panacea or Poison

In order to get out of the debt quagmire, it seems that the government policy making is based on neoliberalism, with emphasis on increasing exports as the lynch pin. The Federal Minister Commerce, Industries & Production as part of the caretaker government, has been paying especial attention to increasing trade relations with various countries, and has even been visiting the MENA region to boost Pakistani trade. In addition, he is hopeful that exports will cross $100 billion in the next five years if the 10,000-acre new industrial zone in Karachi comes to fruition. That this push for exports is having an effect on the trade deficit is certainly there, as it has narrowed by 34.29 percent in the first half (July-December) of the current fiscal year 2023-24. Exports in December have increased by 22.21 percent, from $2.3 billion last year to $2.82 billion for the same corresponding month.

On the whole, there has been increased exports for a number of agricultural goods such as maize, whose exports have tripled, escalating from $85 million to $262 million in a period of one year, and rice whose exports in the same period from last year have gone up from $282.53 million to $367.39 million. Similarly, textile and clothing sector exports have gone up to $1.39 billion, up from $1.35bn in the same month the previous year, and has shown an expansion of 3.3 percent. The export of raw food products have increased massively up to 111.63% in December 2023, and overall, agriculture and food exports jumped by 64% during first half of current fiscal year; the increase was from $2.345 billion to $3.847 billion in same period last year. It needs to be highlighted that our major export markets are the European Union, USA and China. Given the intense political tug of war between the western imperialist countries and China, with Pakistan caught in between, it does not border well for Pakistan. It is important to note that Pakistan is adopting trade settlements in Chinese RMB rather than US dollars. There has been an increase of nearly 600 percent in trade settlements using the Chinese currency. This will decrease the country’s dependency on US dollars but of course what will it mean in terms of Pakistan’s debt obligations to China have to be further studied.

From the perspective of food security, the upsurge in exports for rice, (especially basmati), meat and fruits has other ramifications as well. High food prices mean hardship and hunger for the people at home, especially the very farmers who are responsible for rearing the livestock, fruit and vegetables. In the end, though huge loans taken by governments run by elite of the country, the cost is born by the working masses. There has been high inflation in the country, going up to 29.7 percent in the last months. According to reports, various consumer companies saw their unit sales falling and declining purchasing power of the people. They have been blamed on soaring prices of basic kitchen items, as well as electricity rates. The economic situation of the common man is well understood by suicide cases being reported which include murder of family members as well based on inability to meet family needs. Such shocking cases portray the suicidal rise in basic items. This is even more tragic, given that global food prices came down in 2023. According to the FAO, its Food Price Index (FFPI) fell by 10% below its December 2022 level.

Apart from promoting exports, foreign direct investment (FDI) is also being promoted in the country. Only in November, 2023, FDI increased by 12 percent, growing from previous year’s $117 million to $131.4 million in the same time frame. SBP data for the first half of the current fiscal year shows that a net FDI of $862.6 million was received and is a 35% increase. Foreign investment is based on the primary self-interest of the investors and does not necessarily take into consideration the needs of the local communities, or country’s welfare. The aid agencies as well as commercial groups of various countries including China, UAE, USA are interested in investment in agriculture, including fruits, mines and minerals. This trend is quite apparent. The Caretaker Federal Minister for Privatization has concluded the privatization of the Heavy Electrical Complex (HEC) with the purchasing party IMS Engineering. The Asian Development Bank has stated that it would promote enhancement of the role of the private sector in its so-called climate resilient housing ecosystems. No doubt that these investments will promote neoliberalism, hinged on privatization that would increase the role of transnational corporations responsible for human rights abuses and environmental degradation.

Produce and Export, No Matter the Cost

Agriculture production is bulwark of export. And the means for increasing production seems to lie only on external inputs and technologies. The Economic Coordination Committee (ECC) of the Cabinet has given permission importing 200,000 metric tons of urea as a buffer stock, which is being brought in from Azerbaijan. There were special instructions given against hoarding and ensuring farmers’ easy access to the input. Apart from urea, agriculture sector machinery and equipment were also imported, showing an increase of 60.76 percent.

Of course, multinational corporations such as Nestle have been promoting modern technologies, and for ‘educating’ farmers. It is quite ironical that the farming sector, which is the biggest export sector, responsible for most of the foreign exchange earnings, is always being considered the most backward.

In the same vein, another Spanish clothing multinational, Industria de Diseño Textil (Inditex) is also interested in working with farmers in Pakistan. According to D&B Hoovers, Inditex is one of the world’s largest fashion retailers, globally having 6,475 shops under seven different banners, including Zara, Bershka, and Zara Home. It is owned by a Spanish billionaire. One wonders, why such a corporation, which has faced intense criticism for its ‘fashion sense’ making fun of ongoing massacres in occupied Palestine? Further, can giant multinational corporations who are responsible for intense exploitation of workers and environment deliver justice and equity?

In any case, Inditex has provided funding to the International Labor Organization (ILO) for carrying out the second phase of a program, Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work (FPRW) in the cotton sector. The objective of the workshop is to promote rights of cotton workers, and capacity building of cotton-growing communities to advocate for their rights and address gender inequalities in the sector. The ILO and Inditex entered into a partnership in 2017 to promote an integrated approach to FPRW in the cotton supply chain in China, India, Mali and Pakistan.

Another news item provides information on the caretaker Sindh government and M/s Green Corporate Initiative (Private) Limited entering an agreement to provide over 52,000 acres of land in six districts for corporate farming. This initiative falls under the Special Investment Facilitation Council (SIFC). The M/s Green Corporate Initiative (Private) Limited which is under the umbrella of the Pakistan Army is supposed to carry out corporate farming using barren land in all provinces of Pakistan. It should be noticed that in November 2023, the Economic Coordination Committee (ECC) had approved provision of PKR 20 billion through the Federal Government to the Defence Division, Ministry of Defence. According to the news, based on the successful pilot corporate agriculture farming project in Punjab, a government-to-government (G2G) Joint Venture Agreement was signed at Chief Minister House between the Sindh government and M/s Green Corporate Initiative (Private) Limited. The amount of land and districts included in providing barren land include 28,000 acres in Khairpur, 10,000 acres in Tharparkar, 9,305 acres in Dadu, 1,000 acres in Thatta, 3,408 acres in Sujawal and 1,000 acres in Badin. The agreement is based on 20 years to carry out the so-called Green Pakistan Initiative.

It should be pointed out that while thousands of acres of land is being handed over for corporate farming in Sindh, the province is facing persisting water shortage that could lead to a drought. In addition, climate change impacts including calamities as well as rising sea level has been eating up land and/or it has been destroyed by salinity. The year 2023 has been marked as the hottest year in world records. In Pakistan, the climate crisis has had a major impact on the cotton crop, which has been suffering a decline for a number of years, and even this year the production did not reach the set target. In the mountains, there has been a dry spell and lack of snowfall which means lesser amount of water in the rivers. This will impact fish species that breed in the downstream ecosystem. The impact of climate crisis, now having been upgraded to climate emergency is a global phenomenon. Across the world, countries are suffering from drought, forest fires, decreased ground water and other impacts. For experts on the subject, the answers lie in attracting foreign direct investment in the fisheries sector. Colonial dominance has allowed dependence on foreign expertise rather than trying to tap into indigenous knowledge systems and finding answers from the communities’ wisdom gained over centuries. It is worth pointing out that while so much emphasis is being put on trade and foreign trade, the world is going through an intense political upheaval, with wars and militarization disrupting trade routes. The genocidal aggression by Apartheid Israel against Gaza, suggests of a looming famine in the Strip, with its entire population of 2.2 million already facing crisis levels of food insecurity.

Is this the time for relying more on trade or is it time to assess our internal strengths, capabilities and promote self-reliance leading to a resilient national economy? A recalibration is also needed as according to the World Bank’s analysis Pakistan’s the economic performance does not seem so rosy, with growth projected at only 1.7 percent. This scenario is also predicted globally, where third year in a row, economic growth is predicted to remain slow, prolonging poverty and debilitating debt levels in many developing countries.

The discrimination against small and landless farmers is quite blatant. In Kohat district, the agriculture department has introduced drones for pesticide spraying. From a health perspective, no doubt its beneficial for the farmers to spared pesticide spraying. But a remark from a senior member of the agriculture department that such technology is more time efficient, as well as spares the cost of hiring labor is objectionable. Livelihood, and for that decent livelihood is the responsibility of the state and such remarks show a stark lack of concern for the livelihood of agriculture workers.

Small farmers have great difficulty in accessing these chemical fertilizers due to black marketing, and due to land being intoxicated to these chemicals, it is difficult to get a good harvest without their use. It should be noticed that in the current FY budget, PKR 30 billion have been allocated for fertilizer subsidy. However, the subsidy is provided as gas subsidy to fertilizer plants, and then fertilizer has to be sold at a subsidized rate. As is seen every year, in the end chemical fertilizers are in short supply and hoarded to be sold at much higher rates than set by the government and/or or smuggled out of the country. In summary, profits are minted by various interest groups except small farmers.

At the same time, the government officials protect the big landlords by not levying taxes on their income and agricultural land. According to a tax expert, Dr Ikramul Haq, the remedy is to let the federal government collect the taxation on agricultural income, while transferring to the provincial governments collection of sales tax on goods. According to him, the current situation allows concentration of resources and powers in the hands of privileged classes who support corrupt government officials as they safeguard interests of these elite segments of society. There has been a constant resistance from the federal government and provincial authorities to impose income tax on agricultural income of rich landlords based on their political clout. In the FY22-23, agricultural income tax accumulatively from all of the provincial governments was PKR 2.4 billion. Reportedly, its national potential could be up to PKR 800 billion, if the agricultural income tax was imposed in accordance with the Constitution.

National Assets: Our Children

There is a price to the above policies. And it is being paid by children. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s first provincial Child Labor Survey 2022-23 has shown that 11%, about 745,165 children are employed as child labor. The situation would be more or less the same in the other provinces. With accelerating economic deterioration in the economic stability of the country, children are forced to share in financial provision for their families. Another issue that revolves around children’s health is the increasing occurrence of Type 1 diabetes in children in Pakistan. Around 100,000 are estimated to be suffering. The cause of Type 1 diabetes in children is considered to be the presence of high fatty and processed food. It is considered to be more prevalent in urban rather than rural centers and is also due to lack of healthy environment providing children the awareness and space for physical activity. The context of development is based on many parameters defined in the Sustainable Development Goals of the UN. It is quite evident that children are being neglected in the country based on glamorizing values pertaining to profit-seeking Capitalist society especially targeting children.

There has to be a more wholistic view of development rather than just seeking foreign exchange and chasing our tails to get rid of the mountainous debt.

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