The annual festival of budgets was observed by the federal and all provincial governments with usual fervour and zeal. In absence of long term development goalposts, budgetary speeches and porous promises seldom bring any positive shift in the lives of citizens.
The provincial budget of Sindh was no exception to this jugglery of digits. The provincial finance minister announced to bloat the allocation for the Annual Development Plan (ADP) from the Rs162 billion originally announced for the outgoing year to Rs225 billion in the coming financial year 2016-17. The staggering 39 per cent increase may be bewitching stuff for public consumption but is starkly unrealistic and overestimated if juxtaposed with the spending capacity of the provincial administrative machinery and political will of the ruling party in Sindh.
Last year, the total volume of the provincial ADP (including allocations for district governments) was Rs162 billion. The update appearing on the official website of the Sindh Finance Department on June 17 shows an expenditure of Rs100 billion only. It means the provincial government was able to spend just 61 per cent of the allocated/announced budget. Technically, any amount issued to any department is registered as “expenditure” in the system. However, development budget utilisation e.g. contracts and procurement involves cumbersome processes and eventually much of the amount released will remain unutilised and will lapse. Hence actual spending will be less than even 61 per cent.
The Foreign Project Asssistance depicts even a more dismal picture. Against an allocation of Rs27 billion only Rs2.85 billion were spent which comes to barely 10.5 per cent. The official website has tried to depict higher spending by showing percentages of expenditure against the released amount and not against the allocated budgets.
A sector-wise analysis of spending further unveils misplaced development priorities of the so called people’s government. Spending under some of the key social sectors departments narrates a story of pointless development approach. Education Department spent Rs5.7 billion against an allocated Rs10 billion (57 per cent), Health Department spent Rs5 billion against the allocated Rs13 billion (38 per cent), Provincial Disaster Management Authority spent only 36.4 million against the earmarked Rs650 million (only 5.6 per cent), Population Welfare Department utilised Rs22 million against the committed Rs300 million (7.3 per cent) and Livestock & Fisheries Department could barely utilise Rs282 million against a budget amount of Rs1400 million (20 per cent).
In sharp contrast, Irrigation Department spent Rs12.08 billion against the allocated Rs12 billion (more than 100 per cent) and the Works & Services Department utilised Rs8.66 billion against an earmarked amount of Rs9 billion (96 per cent). These two departments have earned an ignominious notoriety for their chronic record of venality and inefficiency.
Once considered a torch-bearer in the education sector, the province has plunged to the bottom in national ranking.
A closer look at the development budget reveals some more disappointing dimensions. Since the whole development process has been distorted, annual development plan is glaringly bereft of any development vision and planning. In a bid to please assembly members and party leaders, plethora of new schemes are included in the budget every year.
These politically motivated schemes exert pressure on the paltry resources available for development. Consequently, development budget is thinly spread over a large number of projects with long periods of completion. Protracted completion period in turn causes cost escalation and a mounting throw-forward.
Last year, Sindh government announced 590 new schemes, whereas this year it has been more generous by launching 966 new schemes. Last year the total throw-forward was Rs552 billion and this year’s ADP shows throw-forward of Rs638 billion. This is three times more than the total allocation of the ADP.
In 2015-16, average allocation per scheme was Rs60 million which has been increased to Rs72 million for the coming year. Similarly, average throw-forward per scheme has jumped from Rs234 million to Rs239 million in the coming year. By development standards it is not a sustainable process. Piling up of throw-forward will further dilute the allocations and result in the cost overrun. Also a large number of scattered and disjointed schemes do not result in any significant impact on lives of masses.
Poor planning is also evident from massive block allocations against unapproved and, in some cases, unidentified schemes. Karachi mega city projects, allocations for major cities, canal lining, new development initiatives, energy initiatives, gas supply, water hubs and rehabilitation are some of the examples of such shadowy allocations estimated at more than Rs50 billion. Such block allocations are often diverted to politically favoured projects and indicate a failure of planning.
As political influence is dominating the development process, the scientific approach is rapidly vanishing. The very practice has reduced the Planning and Development Department to a mere post office and not a department to follow any long term development objectives for the province. The cycle of development begins with a development vision, followed by research, information analysis and planning to set sectoral priorities. This is a recognised scientific approach of public sector development.
Unfortunately, the whole process of development has been distorted. Research and planning outfits in the province have been made redundant. Politicians have completely sidelined the development professionals and technocrats. In fact, the Sindh government does not have any reputed and recognised public sector development expert in its team.
Development schemes are hijacked by influential politicians, cronies of leaders, voracious contractors and suppliers. It has turned the development process into a farce and development professionals into poodles. Corollary of these practices is a profusion of projects and huge expenditure without creating any impact on people’s lives. An example is education sector where each year 18-20 per cent of the annual budget is allocated with great fanfare but performance indicators are on a sharp decline. Similarly, public sector health facilities are not even considered as last option to visit for those who can afford private health services. Law and order, drinking water and sanitation, justice system are some of the other causalities of this approach.