Redistribute now

By Aasim Sajjad Akhtar

It has been a month since the so-called unity government came to power. It still seems to be labouring under the illusion that formulating a coherent programme to serve the needs of Pakistanis is rocket science. In fact, it is quite straightforward.

For those in government that are committed to doing something substantial, I offer this column as unsolicited advice. To the rest of my readers, I admit that what I present here is not weighed down by the exigencies of electoral considerations — ie constituency-level patronage and the desire for our mainstream politicians to be on the right side of the establishment — but short-term expediency is precisely what has deepened our political-economic predicament.

In a nutshell, Pakistan needs to revive a substantive politics of redistribution. By this I mean both policy initiatives to shake up the old order within Pakistan, as well as a recalibration of Pakistan’s place in the global economic order, so as to redress historic and unequal relationships of exchange and power.

The current regime will at best take short-term steps to stop the bleeding; it is already asking for relief from a gargantuan oil import bill through support from usual suspects like Saudi Arabia. It will soon slash the fuel subsidy and may even raise interest rates, or devalue the rupee. But this is no more than putting a plaster on a festering wound.

I believe that Pakistan’s political impasse — both the civil-military contradiction and the broader intellectual deficit of mainstream politics — can only be addressed if redistribution takes centre stage. So here goes:

Land reform: Many young people may not know that legislation was passed in 1977 to cap the ceiling for land ownership at 100 acres (irrigated) and 200 acres (unirrigated). The Supreme Court’s Shariat appellate bench overruled this legislation in 1989 under the guise that it was ‘un-Islamic’. A petition filed by the inimitable Abid Hasan Minto challenging the bench’s interpretation has been pending in the apex court since 2011. Land redistribution in rural Pakistan, alongside other agrarian reform measures, is essential to ensure millions can meet basic livelihood needs and thereby stop migrating to urban areas in search for secure employment that is a pipe dream. Similar reform measures must be undertaken with regard to forests and water bodies that represent significant livelihood sources.

Regulation of real estate: An incredible amount of money is being minted through speculation on land in (sub) urban Pakistan. Barons like Malik Riaz embody the financialisation of land, as well as the impotence of mainstream political parties insofar as they refuse to regulate this sector. Gated housing schemes come into being through mass dispossession, and they consolidate upward concentration of wealth. The parking of ‘hot capital’ in speculative sectors like real estate and the stock market must be disincentivised. It is worth bearing in mind that the angst generated when the mainstream media reports that the PSX is tanking and that ‘investors’ are losing confidence in the economy reflects the class interests of those who benefit from speculative investment. What we really need is for money to be invested in the long-term welfare of young working people, like health, education, and employment-generating public works.

Reduction in non-productive expenditures, particularly defence: Let us not beat about the bush. Pakistan’s political economy has, virtually since the country came into being, been overdetermined by the imperative of ‘national security’. What eminent economist Kaiser Bengali calls “non-combat defence expenditures” have increased to the point where the costs of meeting the so-called welfare requirements of the military and its retainers is directly borne by the ‘bloody civilian’ working masses. In a related vein, ostentatious consumption of the rich in Pakistan explains why we import so much. Such imports must be regulated.

Genuine anti-imperialist, non-aligned economic ties with the world: All of the above domestic policy steps also demand recognition that global finance and establishments dictate terms to their clients (Pakistan’s establishment and bourgeois politicians). We can choose to continue to remain subject to the whims of ‘foreign investors’ — which include rich diaspora Pakistanis who love to invest in real estate and the stock market — or we can start to become more self-reliant by regulating financial flows and choosing people’s welfare over investors’ profit. Relying only on slogans, as Imran Khan is doing, simply obfuscates the matter.

Postscript: Without such measures, we will keep returning to the same economic dead-end, whilst destroying natural ecosystems at the altar of profit. Future generations will ask why we didn’t choose a politics of redistribution when we had the chance.

The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

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