This week, the incumbent PML-N government presented a Rs. 4.3 trillion budget for the year 2016-17, amidst much appreciation from government loyalists, and criticism from opposition sympathisers. A bare reading of the budget documents, along with the Finance Minister’s speech, would reveal that the budget has been framed around one central objective: that of increasing tax revenue through an expansion of the tax net.

While increasing tax revenue is an admirable endeavour in itself, the 2016-17 Budget, on the whole, leaves much for the wanting. In particular, it is not so much the imposition of specific taxes and grant of subsidies that deserves critique, but instead the budgetary philosophy that requires correction.

In this regard, it is astonishing to note that the latest budget has allocated no meaningful revenue towards the protection and welfare of minorities in Pakistan. No money has been earmarked for special initiatives concerning religious minorities. No special employment initiatives, education incentives or social mobility causes have been envisioned for Christian, Sikh, Hindu, or even Ahmedi citizens of Pakistan.

Worse still, there is no explicit provision of provision of resources for abuse of select human rights in Pakistan. While the relevant ministry has gotten its regular allocation in the budget, no special provisions have been made for the protection of bhatta workers, or child labourers, or even child labor. And none for the reform of the madrassa culture. Or for that of the culture of hate-spewing mullahs who are feeding our next generation with narrative of violence.

This begs a question: why are rights– cajoled in the wrap of culture or religion – not a budgetary preference in Pakistan? Is there something wrong with our cultural ideology, or religious philosophy? Or is the government comfortable in allowing our religion and culture to simply become a tool, in the hands of the few, to perpetuate their personal fiefdoms of tyranny over others? Will our response to human rights abuses be confined to sporadic disingenuous statements of condemnation? Or does our Constitution and the State possess a more potent antidote against such abuses? Can we rescue the subjugated masses from the clutches of cultural tyranny? Or will our laws and our governmental budgetary preference continue to demonstrate impotence in the face of centuries-old practices?

The truth, as hard as it might be for the cultural and religious conservatives to accept, is that we live in the age of human rights. Human rights, as a defining character of the society, existed in the compassionate embrace of a progressive Islamic philosophy, ever since our Book brought an end to the barbaric practice of burying (alive) a newborn daughter. But this lesson of ‘doing unto others as you shall have done to yourself’, in our land, was lost, somewhere along the line, to a bigoted religio-cultural ideology that perpetuated the despotism of the Mullah and his patron Wadera.

On the other hand, at the end of the Second World War, when millions of screams from hundreds of gas chambers pierced the Western conscience, the world woke up to the reality that certain inherent values are so fundamental to us being human, that no culture philosophy or religious ideology can override them. In the shadow of this advent of human rights regime, several modern Constitutions – including that of Pakistan – were written. But writing these ideals, these fundamental rights, into the Constitution, was not enough. To enforce these rights, it was necessary to ensure that the administrative State structure, its budgetary and preferences, and its judiciary, imbibe these ideals as the guiding principles of our democratic dispensation.

In Pakistan, sadly, soon after the writing of our Constitution, the entire human rights regime, its place in our revenue cycle, and its enforcement by our Courts, was delivered a debilitating blow, when the boots of General Zia-ul-Haq, under the garb of a misguided religious ideology, (successfully) turned back the clock on the progress of human virtue. Reeling from this experience, our feeble economy and a pliant judiciary, through the 1990s and the 2000s, remained consumed by the constitutional battle between parliamentary democracy and military rule. The development of a potent fundamental rights enforcement mechanism, during this time, remained a far thought.

Over the past some years, however, there has been a slight turning of the tide in this regard. A vibrant media, a robust NGO-sector, and a resurgent judiciary (in the wake of the fabled Lawyer’s Movement) have breathed life into what was once the dead caucus of human rights in Pakistan. Yet, the political preferences, despite rhetoric to the contrary, have not focused on human rights measures, as is apparent in our latest budget. And as a result, Pakistan has lagged the modern world in developing a culture of rights.

Our Constitution, and specifically the Chapter of Fundamental Rights, incorporates expansive provisions on, inter alia, the Right to Life (Article 9), Right to Dignity (Article 14), Right to Movement, Assembly and Association (Article 15, 16 and 17), Right to Speech (Article 19), Right to Property (Article 24), Right to Equality (Article 25), and the Right to Education (Article 25-A). However, despite these constitutional provisions, a conservative judiciary, along with lack of governmental (budgetary) focus on the same, has kept these constitutional provisions from growing into a culture of rights. We are still grappling with the enforcement of fundamental ideas such as does the right to ‘life’ simply mean a right to breath, or does it entail a more expansive idea of ensuring that each individual is provided the amenities and opportunity necessary to lead a purposeful existence? Is human ‘dignity’ merely a right to not be insulted, or does it promise a deeper faith in the virtue of our humanity – one that does not discriminate between men and women, black and white, Muslim and non-Muslim, able or disabled?

It is time that government’s budgetary preferences, coupled with an expansive judicial philosophy, comes to the rescue of the countless souls whose humanity is being trampled upon by the prejudicial entrenchments of our society. It is time that the spirit of our laws, the mandate of our rights, and the embrace of our Constitution, finds voice in our budget, our governmental programs, and our judicial pronouncements. It is time that we start measuring our national success in terms of the proportion of rights afforded to the citizenry, per unit of budgetary tax collection.

Only in this way can we hope to gain our rightful place in the comity of progressive nations.