“By keeping the current expenditure under tight control, we will be able to create substantial space for development," Finance Minister Ishaq Dar said while presenting the Federal Budget 2017-18 in the National Assembly, reaffirming he has not lost his sense of humour despite juggling with figures year after year.

As he poked fun at figures, they stared back: from Rs3,660 billion in fiscal year 2012-13, when the PPP government responsible for all that is bad with Pakistan’s economy according to Dar made way for the astute, prudent and heady PML-N government, the current expenditure had risen to Rs4,694 billion in fiscal year 2015-16.

In the first nine months of the ongoing fiscal year (2016-17), the current expenditure – as per the provisional budgetary figures released by the Ministry of Finance on May 5 – stands at Rs3,605 billion, implying Rs5 trillion is within the realm of the possible by June 30. The slapstick continues as Dar nonchalantly announces the next year’s current expenditure target of Rs3,477 billion.

For those not well-versed in such theatrics, current expenditure comprises foreign and domestic debt servicing, repayment of foreign loan, superannuation allowances and pensions (civil and military), defence affairs and services, grants and transfers, subsidies, and running of civil government. Even if it had not been the election year, inflation would have meant that the current expenditure would soar to at least Rs5,300 billion.

If Dar’s “tight control” had simply meant reducing the current expenditure by as much as Rs1,800 billion in one year, he would have still not been taken seriously. However, the erstwhile finance minister loses all semblance of reality when he announces, at the same time, an increase not only in defence budget but also salaries and pensions of government employees and armed forces personnel.

To save us more laughter, Dar thankfully does not delve into the details of his tour de force; however, it would not be out of place to briefly discuss how he could not have been more awry when coming up with the idea of austerity he seems to so fondly espouse. The reason is simple. Increase or no increase, actual budgetary figures of almost heads under expenditure traditionally surpass both the original and revised estimates, though no one seems to pay attention when they are made public in August.

In the outgoing budget, the government earmarked Rs1,360 billion for domestic and foreign debt servicing, of which Rs1,095 billion had already been spent in the first nine months, leaving just Rs265 billion for the remaining three months. Even going by the average of the first nine months, the government will surpass its estimate by about Rs200 billion. The target for the forthcoming budget, after an increase of an ‘astounding’ Rs3 billion, is Rs1,363 billion.

Similarly, the government earmarked Rs245 billion for superannuation allowances and pensions (civil and military), of which Rs209 billion had already been spent in the first nine months, leaving just Rs36 billion for the remaining three months. Even going by the average of the first nine months, the government will surpass its estimate by at least Rs35 billion. The target for the forthcoming budget, after an increase of once again an ‘astounding’ Rs3 billion, is Rs248 billion.

Lest one forget, pensions have been increased by 10 percent. How would only Rs3 billion cater to this raise? Is the government planning to lay off its employees and close down public schools and hospitals? How else would it be able to spend less next year than this one while also doling out favours? Perhaps the answer lies in another decent dose of Dar’s dark humour like the one we were treated to on Friday!

The writer is a development professional specialising in budget analysis.