A Pakistani F-16 in flight. Photo: Wikipedia

Last Friday, the federal government led by Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) presented the fiscal budget for 2020-21 in the National Assembly. Since the entire world is facing an uncertain period due to the Covid-19 pandemic, nothing extraordinary was expected from the budget. However, it was expected by many that the government would allocate a greater share of the budget toward health care, as the pandemic in Pakistan is almost getting out of control.

According to the algorithm used by Imperial College London, the total death toll from Covid-19 in Pakistan by next January will be around 2.29 million if a lockdown is not imposed. Even the federal minister for planning, Asad Umar, has said that by the end of July the number of Covid-19 infections in Pakistan could rise to 1.2 million.

So given such a serious situation, the 2020-21 budget, which has a total outlay of 7,294.9 billion rupees (about US$44 billion), was expected to focus on the health-care system and the education sector. However, as critics of the government had feared, it only allocated 83 billion rupees for education and 25 billion rupees for the health sector, while a whopping 1.29 trillion rupees (nearly $7.8 billion) has been allocated to national defense. That means 11.8% growth in defense spending compared with last year’s fiscal budget.

So in the middle of a pandemic, faced with a lack of proper medical facilities and personal protection equipment (PPE) for medical staff, the government decided to allocate more funds to the defense sector, as if guns, tanks and missiles will eradicate the virus that causes Covid-19 and increase the capacity of the health system.

This really seems a cruel joke. After the fiasco over Kashmir, when Pakistan was not able to assess the intention of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to annex Jammu and Kashmir and not able to make a forceful response, any increase in the defense budget itself is questionable.

In a country that is the victim of ignorance and bad health-care and education sectors, it is impossible to justify such huge spending on defense.

Strangely, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which has been dictating the country’s economy since PTI took power, did not raise any objection to this non-productive expenditure. Meanwhile most of the controlled section of the press focused on the no-new-taxes aspect of the budget, and no one questioned the wrong priority and timing of allocating such a huge amount to defense.

The deficit in the new fiscal budget is also the highest in the country’s history, at 3.437 trillion rupees (7% of gross domestic product). The PTI government while presenting the budget also announced that tax revenue would be increased to 4.963 trillion rupees, which is around a 27% increase from the target set in the last budget, yet the government has not devised any plan for accomplishing this when it has declared that no new taxes will be imposed.

This is likely to create uncertainty among investors and businesspeople, as the new revenue target suggests that after negotiating with IMF, the government will announce a mini-budget in October or November and in which new taxes could be announced.

In addition, in spite of rising inflation and growing unemployment, the government has frozen the salaries and pensions of the people associated with different government offices, and the reason cited is the pandemic and lack of funds. One wonders then, if funds are insufficient, why the mighty military establishment is eating such a large chunk of the cake while medical staff are left at the mercy of fate to cope with the rising numbers of Covid-19 victims without any substantial increase in resources.

The provinces’ share of the budget has also been reduced. It is estimated at 2,873.7 billion rupees, which is 11.7% less than under the previous budget. This means that despite the rhetoric of the main opposition parties, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), they actually played the role of facilitator by not challenging either the decrease in the provinces’ share or the increase in the defense budget.

This is how things work in Pakistan: Both the government and the opposition want to remain in the good books of the establishment so as to remain relevant in the power game. This also reflects the mentality of the weak political parties of Pakistan that are still unable to bring democracy to their own cadres and get blackmailed by the invisible forces for their flaws.

On the other hand, this also speaks to the failure of the state to handle the pandemic, as despite the growing numbers of patients, the priority is not to support the masses but the obsession with defense while deliberately ignoring the education and health sectors.

After all, an illiterate society deprived of knowledge is easy to enslave in invisible chains – a slavery that is imposed on generation after generation in the name of patriotism and in the larger interest of the country.

For the last 70 years, it has been the common masses who have suffered and borne the brunt of the wrong policies of the governments brought to power by the establishment. From Ayub Khan to Pervez Musharraf and from Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali to Imran Khan – the faces of hybrid regimes – the slogans and speeches have been the same, with only the faces changing.

The plight of the common masses has never been heard by the dictators, by hybrid regimes like PTI, or even by the opposition parties like the PML-N and PPP.

Covid-19 is threatening to create havoc in the country, and the economy was already in shambles before the pandemic, so despite the government target of attaining 2.1% growth in GDP in fiscal year 2020-21, it will be almost impossible to achieve even 1.50% growth, as instead of being brought under control, the pandemic is spreading.

Meanwhile the opposition, despite criticizing the budget and calling it unfriendly, has not spoken out or tried to inform the masses that in these testing times a rise in defense expenditure while reducing the provinces’ share of federal tax revenue can never be justified. In fact, the opposition seems to be only interested in throwing Prime Minister Imran Khan out of power and replacing him with another pawn of the establishment so as to enjoy the perks and privileges of power.

For many in Pakistan, it is all about surviving the pandemic, and for them, it is luck, not the state, that will play a crucial role. Likewise, for those who are living below the poverty line, there is no hope, as the state’s preference is to buy tanks and ammunition for imaginary wars while the real wars against poverty, illiteracy and the pandemic are left for the masses to fight on their own.

Those are wars they would never have had to fight if the state, instead of becoming a defense-centric entity, had tried to become a welfare state or at least had invested in the future of coming generations by allocating more resources to education and health.

It is a long road ahead for Pakistan unless the democratic political parties learn the art of standing for the people at the right time at the right place when it matters instead of surrendering. As long as the political elite does not change its preferences and the state does not change its priorities, the country is likely to keep on living in the mindset of the medieval age.

Imad Zafar is a journalist and columnist/commentator for newspapers. He is associated with TV channels, radio, newspapers, news agencies, and political, policy and media related think-tanks.