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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Pensions: A brewing disaster

While searching for out-of-the-box solutions for our problems, reducing expenditures the need of the hour. The increasing of pensions is a ticking bomb in the making for a big chunk of the budgetary expenditure which needs immediate attention.

Present public perception benignly ignores the fact that Pakistan’s economy was put in dire straits by the PML(N) govt. The PTI narrative was late in propagating this, PML (N) and PPP have taken full advantage of it. The acute fiscal and monitory problems were belatedly being addressed by this government when the current pandemic shattered economics all over the world. While burgeoning prices were initially acutely felt, the lack of effective monitoring of prices has led to a substantial increase, particularly in food items.

The GDP growth of 5.6% in the year 2017/18 came down to about 2.4% in 2018/19. Expected around 2.5% in the current fiscal year is now likely to go down to (-)1.5%. The next budget will likely be quite difficult because of a large number of workers reverting back to Pakistan from the Middle East. This has caused a temporary increase in remittances; however, technology, if it is implemented without bureaucratic constraints, can remedy this by direct payments, both to accounts directly and through individual mobile telephones. Already under pressure, our exports are likely to be hit hard, further complicated by this year’s low yield of cotton, wheat and vegetables creating the need for more imports.

Potential solutions?

While searching for out-of-the-box solutions for our problems, reducing expenditures the need of the hour. The increasing of pensions is a ticking bomb in the making for a big chunk of the budgetary expenditure which needs immediate attention. PM Imran Khan rightly asserted in a cabinet meeting in August that the ballooning pension expenditure will become our biggest budgetary challenge, further squeezing the space for development unless tackled quickly. The annual federal pension payments of Rs470bn, mostly consisting of military pensions, has grown close to the annual wage bill with federal and provincial pension liabilities already becoming fiscally unsustainable.

The defence-related expenditure has swelled phenomenally because of pension and commutation thereof, whatever head this expense is parked in for accounting purposes, where are the revenues? There will be consequently little for security expenditures in the coming decade. ‘Pension Commutation’ consumes a significant yearly portion of the national budget. A plan to make the pension fund self-sustaining needs a separate and detailed study. Retiring much earlier than their civilian counterparts Armed Forces personnel can still contribute to national life without becoming a burden on the national exchequer.

Read more: Devolution in Pakistan: Issues and way forward

Utilization of trained manpower of defence services, both men and officers, who retire between 40-50 years of age is crucial for the state. Retiring at 60 and after drawing their commutation of 12 years only their civilian counterparts are due for full pension at 72 years of age. The national budget has to bear their expenses for almost 15-20 years. With well-trained manpower out in the market looking for jobs for which they are untrained, through a lot of financial hardship at a crucial stage of their life and with only a limited number of jobs available, it can be a demeaning and frustrating exercise for the individual.

Any arrangement must cater for (1) the State deferring the amount spent on ‘commuted pension’ (2) Make full use of the productivity of personnel on whom a considerable amount has been spent on training and (3) saving on training costs. It is proposed that (1) completing their service around 40-45 years of age due to no further promotion opportunity be absorbed in the Civil Armed Forces (CAF), Police/Magistracy, Ministry of Law and Education (particularly for employment in difficult areas) up to 60 years of age. Saving a lot of money through this synergy for the state, guaranteed employment is given to all officers and other ranks (who opt to stay in service), up to 60 years of age, as per civil service rules.

When absorbed in (a) Pakistan Rangers (b) Pakistan Coast Guards (c) Frontier Constabulary KPK (d) Frontier Corps KPK (e) Frontier Corps Balochistan (f) Airport Security Force (g) Anti-Narcotics Force and (h) Police (j) as Magistrates and Judges for the lower Courts, etc the quality of each service would mostly improve considerably. This retired personnel already have adequate knowledge of administration, military law, security, intelligence, enquiries, training, etc. They must still be put through specialised short courses/training necessary for the respective discipline before induction (2) Full pension to be paid only after completion of 60 years of age. (3) Officer grade persons in each discipline would continue to be directly selected by these institutions but no recruitment at the jawan level in any CAF Branch/Force. Excess existing training schools and institutes should be closed and substituted by a specialised school with its branches in each province for entire CAF.

Leadership for CAF, in any case, is largely provided by the Army who will maintain the quality for their own operational duties. To ensure better coordination between all segments of CAF and GHQ, a separate headquarter is required for CAF under the “Strategic Force Group” a “Homeland Security Group” remaining under the Ministry of Interior. To compensate for local enrolment of young blood in CAF etc, from deprived areas, they should be given an additional quota for enrolment in the Army.

Police have been invariably used as a political basis by consecutive Governments, this allows police personnel latitude to do what they please. Because of high-handedness and abusive behaviour, no self-respecting person wants to visit a Thana. While genuine attempts have been made by the new cadre of police leadership over the past several years, the Thana still remains a place to avoid instead of being of support to the citizens. Staffing Thana with such personnel will certainly change the Thana culture. It is necessary to have judicial magistrates on the premises for 24 hours. The Army Jawans must undergo conversion training of 1-2 months in the Police Training Centres or organized under the army.

Read more: Pakistan’s Unsustainable Pension Bomb

In order to keep full strength of Magistrates/Judges (in the lower Courts) and around the clock in the Thana, the posting of law-qualified retired Army Officers will be a force-multiplier. This will be an additional boost for inquiries/investigation, all Army Officers are trained/experience at this. Majors must have passed the “Capt to Major” Promotion Examination which has “Military Law” as a subject, you have to have practical knowledge of civil law to implement military law. With additional training/law education will certainly deliver better results and ease the congestion in the courts. List of pending cases will be reduced and the efficiency of the Government will improve.

Potential benefits of amendments

The advantage for the state is in the (1) delaying payment of commutation of pension for about 15 years, this country needs every penny at this time (2) Having one Training Centre for all elements of CAF is another huge saving (3) continuous inflow of trained/disciplined/experienced manpower to the CAF at all times. (4) Ex-Armed Forces officers adjusted as Magistrates/Judges/Teacher and the ones working in Police Stations will certainly change the overall prevailing culture which will ultimately help the State. (5) Shortage in the Magistracy/Junior Court Judges made up quickly. (6) God knows that the maintenance of facilities in schools, colleges and medical facilitated are in a terrible state. Officers, JCOs and NCOs after necessary courses and training can fill the dearth of administrators of schools and colleges particularly in the rural areas close to their home station. Some who have done instructional duties in Armed Forces schools of instructions can be employed as teachers at the levels that the expertise of their previous employment allows.

The advantages for the individuals are as follows:- (1) A full continuous spell of service of sixty years like Civil Government Servants gives them job security (2) Like civil servants, they will also be free of their main worries by the time they retire. (3) Will not have to run for a second job. It is recommended that (1) Officers and men be given the option to leave regular service after 45 years of age eligible for Pension/Commutation only on completion of sixty years. (2) Except those who do not want to use the option of continuing service after 45 years of age, all Sepoys/NCOs/JCOs under the policy will automatically be transferred to CAF. (3) Dovetailing all the myriad number of HQs will result in lots of savings. (3) Competition for promotions/appointments and internationally approved standards must be put in place during the induction process, less CAF. This will need a comprehensive regulatory mechanism.

Read more: ‘Pakistanis are becoming poorer under PTI’: An interview with former finance minister Miftah Ismail

The military mind is very averse to change normally, new ideas are normally looked askance at. However, the quality of the officer corps today is better than a decade or so ago, they are far better educated, better trained – and through various ranks having acquired tremendous combat experience in the last 20 years, they seem far more receptive to change. Our military hierarchy must be prepared to take these draconian but positive measures necessary to break the logjam and the routine inertia while releasing considerable funds for development.

Ikram Sehgal, author of “Escape from Oblivion”, is a Pakistani defense analyst and security expert. The article first published in Daily Times and has been republished with the author’s permission. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.