In free fall: Breaking up with tea to save economy

Pakistanis love their tea in all flavours. Common Pakistanis also relish the manner in which they sip their tea: they usually pour half a cup into a saucer before slurping the sugary-syrupy liquid. This could go on endlessly through the day on any Pakistani street.

So, when Pakistan’s Planning and Development Minister Ahsan Iqbal “appealed” to his countrymen a couple of weeks ago to cut down on chai and restrict themselves to just two cups a day—in the name of “austeri-tea”—there, obviously, was a backlash; on the streets and on social media. The ministerial suggestion became a butt of jokes, ribald and otherwise.

The brew is not the only storm in the Pakistani cup. The country is besieged with a host of other complex issues from a sinking economy, including a battered currency, a precarious balance of payment situation; opaque national security vis-a-vis a resurgent Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan backed by the Afghan Taliban and a seemingly problematic Balochistan; a rudderless policy on Kashmir; a listless foreign policy insofar as America is concerned; to Pakistan’s traditionally bitter internal political rivalry. Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif has taken a calculated gamble in imposing a ‘super tax’ on the rich. This is a double-edged sword. Much as it may bring in revenue for the cash-strapped government, the measure can turn the wealthy against the ruling coalition at a time when both sides in the National Assembly are preparing for the elections due in August 2023, unless advanced this year.

Meanwhile, Iqbal’s appeal came in the backdrop of a mounting economic crisis. Pakistan has weathered many economic storms but this one appears to have flattened all past recovery curves. On the brink of bankruptcy, the country has not just singled out the humble tea, of which Pakistan is the largest importer in the world—the country imported tea worth Rs 13 billion or $60 million in FY 2021-22—but has flirted with the possibility of cutting down on working days to save on fuel. This alone would help save an estimated $2.7 billion in precious foreign exchange.

“Our broth is a mix of structural, political and geopolitical elements in which governance incompetence coupled with global inflationary tendencies have combined to produce the mess we are in now,” Zafar Habib, an Assistant Professor at the Peshawar-based Institute of Management Sciences, told this correspondent over the phone.