COVID pakistan
Policemen wearing facemasks check motorcyclists at the Tablighi Markaz checkpoint in Lahore (File) Image Credit: AFP

Hope may spring eternal in the human breast but every year it also pops up on the calendars when the pages flip to usher in a new year. People around the world chart their plans, make resolutions, renew commitments and allow themselves the luxury of taking a more positive view of the months ahead.

This year Pakistan’s transition from the dreadful 2020 to 2021 hasn’t been ideal as news of murders in its embattled Balochistan province and killing of youth in Islamabad have given past patterns of sadness a rather unusual continuity. But that regardless, wishlists aren’t scarce; and neither is the thing-to-do worksheet short of boxes the public wants the government to tick.

The foremost issue to be tackled in the new year is inflation. Prices of commodities of daily use have acted as a genie out of bottle wreaking havoc with households. If incomes cannot rise because of economic slowdown, then administrative measures need to be taken to bring down artificial increases caused by local hoarding and arbitrary decisions by merchants and traders.

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This is eminently doable as it requires management decisions and without the complex effort to turn around the market dynamics of supply and demand. This relief can go a long way in appeasing public anger and can serve as a palliative in a sour political environment.

The effort also has to expand to include medicines and fuel prices. The year began on an uninspiring note on both these counts. As winter-related infections spread and health facilities become expensive, the public need for government intervention in this sector becomes all the more pressing.

Nothing of significance has happened so far. Fuel prices and the cost of electricity is another monster that needs to be pinned down.

Steep petrol and electricity prices

On the first day of the new year regulatory officials had to raise diesel, petrol and electricity prices because of revenue shortages, and supply side challenges but the government intervened and claimed to slash the recommended increase to less than half.

It got little credit and earned much ire because of that since each raise in these prices — and there have been too many to count in the past 16 months — leads to a jump in inflation which inevitably is passed on to the already burdened consumers.

The government has promised to address this vicious cycle and provide some breathing space to the public. It has made special committees and has asked different ministries to ensure that somehow a breakthrough is provided in a challenging environment. Winter pressure is likely to persist for another two months and it is expected that after about eight weeks the situation may improve, but seeing will be believing.

To assuage rattled nerves of the public a more spectacular area is the COVID-19 vaccination process. Pakistan is unfortunately at the bottom of the list of countries that are likely to benefit from breakthroughs in this critical field. The bright sides being debated in the policy circles relates to the possibility of a Chinese antidote being made available in the closing months of the new year.

More jobs and revival of industry and the agriculture is another area where something will have to give. The beginning of the new year is not strikingly dissimilar to the last one in its challenges, but foreign remittances and exports have shown signs of life. A big bang revival of the economy is not on the horizon but under the circumstances even a slim beam of light makes a lot of difference.

Farms must be incentivised

Farms need to be given incentive to improve productivity and also get more premium on their produce. For a country that has one of the world’s largest irrigation networks and has most of its labour employed in the agriculture sector, Pakistan’s performance has been average, to say the least.

Per acre productivity has declined and water-guzzling cash crops have overtaken crops that provide food-security, forcing the country to spend precious foreign exchange on import of food items including cooking oil.

The government has often spoken about turning Pakistan’s green fields into hubs of a “green revolution”, but the talk is familiar in that practically everyone who has held power in the country has pretty much said the same thing. The revolution is eagerly awaited even now.

One year will not move the mountains of neglect spread over decades but some affirmative action in the agriculture sector — more interest free loans, better living conditions, astute family planning to protect small landholdings from fragmenting into many hands -- can alleviate poverty and provide employment.

A gainfully employed, skilled labour, a revived industry, controlled inflation and relief from fuel and electricity price hikes can make the new year look vastly different from the previous ones. This is not asking for too much if the government gets its priorities right.

Syed Talat Hussain is a prominent Pakistani journalist and writer. Twitter: @TalatHussain1