Pakistan is such an absolutely amazing place. If you put that copy of Newsweek down for a moment and think what we’ve built in the last 60 years, I think rationality would require you to be close to awe-struck. Today we are a country on the verge of ascent into globally acknowledged greatness. We were born under circumstances that were supposed to lead to our demise inside of 12 months, according to the Nehru/Mountbatten calculus. Not only are we still around, we are 170 million strong, with consistently increasing GDP, a resilient economy, amazingly intelligent people, brilliant businesspeople and an ever-increasing global role.
Yes, we have our problems, but these are absolutely nothing compared to what we have already surmounted and what we are about to achieve. Let me break it down like so: what are our problems today? Or let me ask this another way, what if we achieved the following:
1) 100% literacy, up from the current 50-60% levels
2) Completely indigenous power production for 100+% of our needs
3) Reduction in population growth to 1.2%, with further annual reductions from there on
4) Control over fringe nihilist elements let loose in our society by X, Y and Z.
5) Impenetrable external defences
6) An economy that produces a trade surplus
7) A quadrupling of GDP (and per capita income)
8 ) Strengthened institutions; parliament, military, judiciary, executive, law enforcement etc.
9) A culture of citizen contribution; better tax collection, more community involvement
10) Tier-1 infrastructure; roads, flyovers, underpasses, dams and more.
Is this a Utopian vision for Pakistan? Is the Newsweek caricature of Pakistan close to the truth? Before you rush to judgment, let’s take it one step at a time and think about it.
50% of the population in Pakistan is under 18. And according to UNICEF, 80% of children in Pakistan aged 5-9 years are enrolled in school. So, what does that mean for us just 10 years hence? The rate of literacy in Pakistan will grow tremendously. Since no literate parent keeps his/her children illiterate, what will it mean for us just 15-18 years hence? We will be nearing 100% literacy, and at least 100% of our school-age children will be enrolled. By the way, we can do this a lot quicker! There are excellent NGOs, government programs (e.g. Parha Likha Punjab) and other public/private efforts to accelerate this greatly. I have a lot of hope we’ll get to 100% in under 15 years. We are not doing badly.
Over the last couple of years energy consumption has outpaced production. This has happened due to multiple reasons. Much of our electricity is produced by hydel means and water has been an issue over the last 2 years. The cost of oil had risen sharply and oil powered generation had to be reduced. Finally, during the past 10 years, our per capita incomes have risen drastically and with that, we’ve bought ACs, fridges, consumer electronics, computers… our per-person energy consumption has increased drastically. From some stats I have seen, in 2007 alone about a quarter million AC units made in Pakistan were sold domestically. With each unit averaging 1 ton, consuming 5 amps x 240 volts (1.2 Kw), we are talking about a net addition of 250MW consumption just due to ACs sold in that one year. In general, we’ve added Gigawatts to our consumption totals, while our population has grown at about 1.94%, which is way too high. We’ve had tremendous demand side pressures with supply side weakness (oil, water etc.) leading to 18 months of power-related difficulties. But many have looked at this as a permanent state. It is not. The increase in per-capita demand has slowed as a market under served with consumer electronics has caught up to a large degree. Simultaneously, significant supply in the form of Thar Coal, Chashma, Bhasha-Daimer dam, Thermal projects and alternate energy is coming online. By all estimates, energy demand/supply should net-out within the next 12-18 months. It has already improved from the situation 12 months ago.
Let’s come to population. And let’s treat it quantitatively. In 2003, we were growing at over 2%. By end 2008, we were down to 1.8%. The efficacy of population reduction programs has increased, and undoubtedly, their outreach has been extended. The Punjab launched an excellent lady health worker program along with strong radio, TV and print ads. These programs will not see instant success, but even at the current rate, within the next 15 years, we will be down to about 1.2% growth. This means that population in Pakistan will not quite double. Ever. Even if we just keep progressing at the current rate with no improvement in success due to increased healthcare outreach, increased literacy, increasing per-capita incomes, even then, we will start to shrink around the time we hit 300-310M people. Now, that sounds large, but think of the following. India is 3 times larger than Pakistan in land mass. It has about 7.5 times our population, so their density is about 2.5 times ours. In other words, decades into the future when Pakistan’s population peaks, our population density will be about 75% of what India’s is today. Think about that. Let’s worry about our population’s growth rate today, let’s control it, but let’s not be chicken little please.
Control over nihilist elements is going to happen. The fact of the matter is that the population of FATA is in total, about 1.5-2% of Pakistan’s population. Of the people who live in FATA, perhaps – and this requires some stretching of the imagination – 1-2% are foreigners (Uzbeks, Arabs etc.) and extremists. These are the ‘bad guys’. Their numbers do not allow them to “take control”. They definitely have significant nuisance value though. I don’t want to get into whether the Swat deal was good or bad, whether the pictures of TTP terrorists being received in Government buildings in Afghanistan and India are true and all that. All I can tell you is that the math doesn’t support the hysteria. This is not an existential issue, though it is a confidence-in-government issue. It needs to be resolved and I think we will find that Gen. Kayani has significant surprises up his sleeve over the next year-18 months. Change is in the air.
External defences: I want to tell you that we are already there. We are a country that builds its own Fighter Aircraft. Its own Ballistic Missiles. Its own Cruise Missiles. Its own Tanks. Its own APCs. Its own Submarines. It’s own Frigates. Its own UAVs. And, of course, its own nuclear weapons. And every day all the above get stronger and grow more potent. Bottom line, there is no conceivable external threat faced by us today that could challenge our existence without having its own put out of commission. MAD is definitely in play. Please think for a moment where we were in 1947. We had a few thousand .303 rifles, barely functional jeeps and a handful of lightly armed WW-II prop driven planes. The division of forces and monies agreed to between Pakistan and India was never honoured. We never received what was due to us, and had a war imposed on us in 1948 in that state of unpreparedness. Some people thought it would be a rout, but it wasn’t. If our existence was ever threatened it was then, but we triumphed. Compare where we stand today. Awe some. In the true sense of the word.
An economy that produces trade surpluses: the very worst that we have ever done is a $20.7BN trade deficit (2008), mostly due to $150 crude. Within one year, with significant reduction not only in oil prices but also in unnecessary imports, we have arrested this quite sharply and with growth in exports, such as defence (tripled to $300M – expected to hit $1BN within the next 5 years with JF-17 sales), software and core areas such as textiles, there is reason to hope this will be brought down further. The State Bank’s usually conservative quarterly report addresses this in a very positive way. Efforts like the first phase (1 Gigawatt) of the Thar Coal project and the $5B Khalifa Refinery will also significantly decrease our energy import bill, thus impacting the deficit positively.
Pakistan’s GDP doubled in the last 10 years. Barring the brakes the global slowdown has put on every economy around the planet, it is not unrealistic to expect 6-7% growth rates for Pakistan going forward. This means our GDP will quadruple in about 20 years. Our population would not have kept pace, therefore, our per capita income will be somewhere between 250-350% of where it stands today. Within 10-14 years, this will allow the population currently living below the poverty line to rise above it. Current estimates put 24% of the population under the poverty line, but as the chart shows, that percentage has fallen about 16% from 2001 to 2009.
If the political happenings of the recent past are any indication, not only has the judiciary been strengthened, so too has the parliament. And there appears to be a developing consensus between the Army, Parliament, Judiciary and Executive on how best to keep things straight. The political temperature dropped significantly because arguably for the first time in Pakistan’s history, peaceful mass protests resulted in change at the highest levels. Without violence. This is significant and now that it has happened, there is no turning back.
In order to build Pakistan, we all have to contribute. Our time, money and energy. At the grassroots level, tax collection is improving drastically in Pakistan. I can personally vouch for the fact that tax returns are more efficient and automated now than ever before. It’s actually relatively easy to e-file taxes. All these are innovations that have resulted from the past decade. Withholding collections apply to a far larger number of working people than before. Systems are now in place, including NADRA and bank-run databases, that can help the Federal Government collect taxes effectively. Despite the critics who may find 100 faults with where we are, no one can contest that the improvement has been tremendous and quite rapid. It is continuing.
Coming to my personal favourite, Tier-1 infrastructure. This too is an area that has seen absolutely tremendous improvement in the last 5-10 years. So much is being done in Pakistan – so much construction, so much building – that it is hard for me to list here. There are actually entire websites devoted to tracking projects worth billions and billions of USD$ that are in progress in Pakistan at any given moment. We started off with the Lahore-Isl Motorway. It took us 45 years to get to that level. And in the next 10, we exceeded Akbar’s penchant for building! The Sindh-Baluchistan Coastal Highway, a brand new port city in Gwadar, a new Airport in Lahore, international airport at Sialkot, two new ones being built in Islamabad (Pakistan’s largest) and Gwadar. Multiple dams are under construction, the M2 Motorway now connects with M1, so Lahore-Peshawar is an end to end six-lane super-highway. That network was also extended to Sargodha and Faisalabad (complete), from Karachi to Hyderabad (expansion), and now the highway network is shadowing the old Grand Trunk road, snaking down into Multan. We’ve also widened and upgraded the world’s highest highway, the Karakoram Friendship Highway and are building rail links through the length of Pakistan (Gwadar to China).
The number of hotels under construction in Pakistan will more than quadruple the number of 5-star rooms in the country; Hyatt in Lahore, another in Islamabad, Intercontinental in Islamabad, 7-star Centaurus in Islamabad etc. etc. The Sheikh Zayed complex under construction in Lahore will be completed in the next 3-4 years and will be the highest building in South Asia. On a clear day you will be able to see the Golden Temple from its observation deck. The neighbouring Software Park Tower, to be completed in the next 4-5 months, is a technological marvel. Lahore’s under construction Ring Road will put an almost 80km highway loop all around the city, making distant parts readily accessible, connecting the new housing societies and DHA (Defence Housing Authority) Phases to the older parts of the city. Just in Lahore alone, there will be a near doubling of modern housing capacity in the next decade with Defence Phase 6, 7, 8 and 9, Lake City (10,000 homes) and a plethora of others.
Phew. That took quite some effort. But I hope it was worth it.
The net-net of all of the above is that Pakistan is at the cusp of exponential infrastructural improvement and development. We will transform our country into an even more amazing and wonderful place in the next 10-20 years. We will see continuous improvement in all these areas and more, through the next 2 decades. By 2030 you will see Pakistan emerge as a very significant global power, inshaAllah. It’s all in the numbers and it’s going to happen. Damn the naysayers.