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  #1571  
Old Saturday, November 26, 2016
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Default November 26th, 2016

Forced conversions


On Thursday, Sindh did Pakistan proud. The provincial assembly spoke with one voice, resoundingly and with conviction, for minority communities living in Sindh when it unanimously passed a law criminalising forced conversions.

Tabled last year by a PML-F lawmaker, Nand Kumar Goklani as a private bill, the Criminal Law (Protection of Minorities) Act, 2015 stipulates a sentence of between five years and life imprisonment for those found guilty of forcible conversion, along with a fine to be paid to the victim.

Anyone who performs or facilitates the marriage of a victim of forced conversion is liable to a three-year prison term as well as a fine payable to the victim. Where forced conversion is alleged, the victims will be given 21 days by the court to arrive at an independent decision regarding their change of faith before action under this law is initiated. And a change of religion by minors will not be recognised until they reach the age of majority.

Although the Constitution guarantees the right to freedom of religion, the situation demanded the passage of such a law. Forced conversions have long been an unfortunate reality here, an inevitable consequence of the ideological narrative that has pervaded the public space over the past few decades.

In such an environment, it is difficult, even risky, to argue that compelling a person to change their faith through duress or pressure, whether physical, emotional or psychological, is immoral and unethical.

For the same reason, forced conversions are almost impossible to reverse: if victims assert their adherence to their original faith, it can attract accusations of apostasy and leave them vulnerable to religious vigilantism.

Human rights organisations estimate that around 1,000 women and young girls — largely from Hindu and Christian families, in Sindh and Punjab respectively — are forcibly converted every year after being kidnapped, and then married to Muslims, often the abductors themselves.

While it is admittedly not always easy to determine if a conversion is forced or whether the individual has taken the step of their own volition, a law such as the one recently passed addresses the circumstances in which forced conversions usually happen and ends the impunity with which the perpetrators practise it. Unlike many other laws that address social ills, it should also be comparatively easier to implement.

However, this progressive legislation will almost certainly draw the ire of self-appointed guardians of the faith, the same lobby that creates an intimidating atmosphere in courtrooms where families of women and young girls allegedly converted by force seek justice for their loved ones.

Not only should the lawmakers hold their ground, but other provinces should follow suit. By signalling so decisively to the nation that coercion in matters of faith is unacceptable, Sindh has laid down a framework that can enable us to be a better people.


Iraqi massacre


AS the militant Islamic State group gets pounded on the battlefield, it has resorted to a familiar tactic: the mass slaughter of civilians. On Thursday, around 100 pilgrims returning from Arbaeen — as Imam Hussain’s chehlum is also known — in Karbala were killed as a massive truck bomb ploughed into buses in the Iraqi town of Hilla. Most of the victims were reportedly Iranian. Between 17 million and 20 million people had gathered in Iraq over the past few weeks to march to Karbala for Arbaeen. Protecting this mass gathering of humanity was indeed a challenge for the Iraqi forces; around 25,000 troops had been dispatched to Karbala for security. However, while the administration managed to protect the holy city, the terrorists struck a relatively more vulnerable spot. Some commentators have said the Hilla attack could be a diversionary tactic to take attention away from Mosul, where the Iraqis are leading the operation to liberate this key city from IS clutches. The Iranians are playing a major role in assisting Iraqi forces, which is why, in its claim of responsibility, IS boasted it had targeted Iranians. Another major motivation for the attack is, of course, the rabidly sectarian nature of IS. Earlier this year, after the Iraqi government had freed Fallujah from IS’s grip, the terrorist outfit carried out a devastating bombing targeting a market in Baghdad’s Karrada area. Over 340 people were killed in that atrocity in July.

For Iraq to turn the page on it recent blood-soaked history, it is essential to ensure that IS does not have any space to operate from in the country. In order to prevent more horrific loss of life, the Mosul operation must be taken to a successful conclusion; the administration must remain on guard as IS has pledged to carry out more attacks on Baghdad, Karbala and Najaf. In the aftermath of the Hilla tragedy, Iranian President Rouhani has called for an “all-out fight” against terrorism. Indeed, this is a call that all countries in the region should support. However, for such a fight to be successful, the Syrian quagmire needs to be resolved, as it has become a magnet for extremist fighters. Naive as it may sound in this world of cunning geopolitics, regional countries as well as global powers must put aside their political differences and concentrate on the defeat of IS for the security of the entire region.

Tobacco menace


DESPITE the passage of laws such as a ban on smoking at public places, ridding Pakistani society of this nuisance has proved difficult. Ensure success in one place — for instance, smoking rooms have disappeared from major airports — and the menace pops up somewhere else. The latest trend in this regard was pointed out in Islamabad on Thursday, when the Network for Consumer Protection launched its report Monitoring of Tobacco Advertising, Promotion, Sponsorship and Point of Sale Advertising. Compiled after a survey conducted around schools in Islamabad, Rawalpindi, Peshawar, Lahore, Karachi and Quetta, the report said that multinational cigarette manufacturing companies are now targeting children as young as six. This is being done by placing advertisements and products in shops around educational institutions. Some 83pc of the shops surveyed had cigarettes displayed behind cash counters, 50pc had placed cigarettes alongside candies and snacks, and 14pc were even offering incentives such as limited time offers or free gift on purchase. Yet the most worrying violation was that 89pc of the shops do not display the ‘no sale to minors’ signage mandated by the law.

Behind these numbers is a serious, ongoing healthcare crisis. Time and again, around the world, it has been shown that the best way to reduce the incidence of smoking is to ensure that new generations are not attracted to the habit or held hostage by it. But even a cursory glance at marketplaces around the country shows that very little effort is being made to shield youngsters from the dangerous habit — in fact, the sale of cigarettes is rampant. Tobacco is big business, and taxing the sector heavily around the world has been employed as a method to discourage its consumption. But that in itself has given the tobacco lobby the means to put pressure on governments, Pakistan being no exception. Urgently needed is not just enforcement of the law and sustained awareness-raising campaigns, but also higher taxes with strong political backing.

Published in Dawn, November 26th, 2016
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Old Tuesday, November 29, 2016
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Default November 29th, 2016

NFC deadlock?


THE latest meeting of the National Finance Commission held on Monday saw the government asking the provinces to bear a greater share of the burden of growing security expenditures. Meanwhile, the provinces made their demands for more revenue lines to be devolved in the next NFC award. The makings of a deadlock are now apparent. The provinces are unlikely to yield to the centre’s demand, while the finance minister’s suggestion that other routes can be sought to limit the quantum of resources that flow to the provinces under the last NFC arrangement could take on the appearance of a threat to act unilaterally. Given the powerful imperative that the government has put behind its demand for sharing the growing costs of the burden of security expenditures, it will be difficult for the provinces to make a clear case against the proposal.

The finance minister has proposed that 3pc of the federal divisible pool be set aside to be used to meet the growing expenditures arising from the creation of new security wings, some for CPEC’s safety and some others for internal duties. The argument for creating a larger security force is a separate debate for another time considering the stark challenges that continue to bedevil the country despite the improvements of the past few years. But this manner of arranging resources should be carefully considered for the precedent that it sets, and for the possibilities of upward creep it creates for the future.

When considering the proposal, it is imperative to point out that we are in this position because of a failure to mobilise domestic resources to pay for the expenses of a modern state, advice that has been repeatedly given to us by the rest of the world at every forum for well over three decades now. The resource constraints are now biting harder and harder as the government has tapped out all other revenue lines, whether ad hoc taxes on banking transactions, or greater reliance on withholding taxes to burden compliant taxpayers further, or even surcharges on utility bills such as power and gas. The failure to build a revenue base to sustain the state’s growing resource requirements has driven the government to ask the provinces to share the burden as well, after having made it as difficult as possible for those paying their bills and taxes. And on that count, to begin a long-drawn process of mobilising a new source of revenue that taps undocumented incomes and can credibly grow to become a major revenue source in the future, the government’s failure is manifest. It is the cost of this failure that it is now bringing to the provinces and asking them to share the burden of. The NFC award was supposed to devolve further resources and responsibilities to the provinces, but now it appears to be heading towards a deadlock.

PTI and parliament


OFTEN fighting it out in the streets, both the PML-N and PTI have been taken to task over how little importance they accord to the proceedings in parliament. The ruling party has often been accused of ignoring the two houses until forced to occasionally return to the ultimate forum of democratic solution-finding in a dire moment. Meanwhile, where parliamentary debate is concerned, the PTI leader has shown similar arrogance. Indeed, as someone who claims to have been denied his rightful numbers in the assemblies, Imran Khan has often been found bristling at even the mere suggestion that his party was doing no one any favours by continuing to stay away from the elected houses in Islamabad. It is a surprise then that the PTI has allowed its lawmakers to take part in the working of the standing committees of the Senate and National Assembly. Sceptics biased against Mr Khan and his politics may be inclined to see this as part of a grand strategy. They might want to project it as opening a face-saving avenue for the PTI in the event it is left with no option but to commit to working within the system at some future point. Suppose the opposition party cannot do anything else and is forced to retrace its steps to the Assembly. In such a scenario, as opposed to moving from total isolation, working with the committees would make it just a little easier for it to make the otherwise tough transition.

There is definitely a problem. The PTI must go on pressing with its campaign that is, above and over all recent corruption stories, ultimately based on the complaint that the party was hard done by in the 2013 election. This is a perception which seems to be shared by large enough sections of Pakistanis to have provided the central point of politics in the country for so long. Mr Khan is obviously aware of his support base and would be inclined to make statements aimed at keeping this capital secure. However, side by side exists a most pronounced, even unprecedented chorus that speaks about the need to not waste the democratic parliamentary thrust that exists today in Pakistan after decades of going astray. The PTI as a major party must keep this second reality in mind. It cannot stay too far away from the Senate and National Assembly. Preferably, it must be inside parliament.

Cabinet expansion


IN both established democracies and evolving set-ups — such as ours — a variety of interests have to be accommodated by those in power. There are campaign promises to fulfil, special interest groups to satisfy and ‘electables’ whose calls must be heeded. In Pakistan, biradari, regional and tribal interests must be added to this mix. One way of pleasing different interest groups is to accommodate them in the cabinet, and Pakistan has a hallowed tradition of jumbo cabinets, even though the 18th Amendment has sought to control the size of government. In keeping with this political tradition, the Punjab government expanded the cabinet on Sunday; 11 ministers, as well as a number of special assistants and advisers, were added to the provincial cabinet. This brings the number of ministers in Punjab to 31, while the cabinet also contains special assistants and advisers. Seemingly, Punjab is following in the footsteps of Sindh, as the latter has a cabinet of over 40. However, both these administrations pale in comparison to the jumbo set-up Aslam Raisani once managed in Balochistan; over 50 worthies were part of the cabinet in a house of 65 MPAs. It is difficult to understand how the provincial high-ups manage such fuzzy maths, for the 18th Amendment expressly limits provincial cabinet size to 15 ministers, or 11pc of the assembly, “whichever is higher”.

In Punjab’s case, the expansion apparently took place to accommodate disgruntled elements who could not be fitted into the new local government scheme, as well as to accord southern Punjab greater representation, though the region still remains

under-represented. Moreover, the N-League has an eye on 2018; various interest groups have to be pacified and cajoled to ensure the party puts up a solid performance in the next national polls. Whatever the justification, there is valid criticism that Shahbaz Sharif should delegate authority as despite the large cabinet, the Punjab chief minister prefers the one-man style of governance. Voters would also be justified in expecting better service delivery from the enlarged cabinet.

Published in Dawn November 29th, 2016
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Old Wednesday, November 30, 2016
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Default November 30th, 2016

Pak-India dialogue


IN the midst of jingoism and false bravado, it can be difficult to remain restrained, sensible — and diplomatic.

But despite New Delhi’s excessive brinkmanship and emotional calls within Pakistan to respond in the same manner, the Foreign Office continues to hew to a measured and dialogue-driven approach towards India.

So not only is the prime minister’s adviser on foreign affairs, Sartaj Aziz, set to visit Amritsar next week for a Heart of Asia conference, but Pakistan’s high commissioner to India Abdul Basit has let it be known that the foreign adviser’s schedule is flexible and that if bilateral talks are made a possibility, Mr Aziz could extend his daylong trip if necessary.

In continuing to keep the door to dialogue open in the face of blatant rejection by India and somewhat strong opposition at home, the government is doing the politically difficult but diplomatically necessary thing.

What remains to be seen is how India reacts. The signs are not good at the moment, but the possibility of a surprise change in attitude should not be ruled out.

Unhappily, India seems to be more in a mood to test Pakistan’s resolve and to try and find chinks in its diplomatic armour internationally.

After Prime Minister Narendra Modi declined to attend a heads of government Saarc summit in Islamabad, the Indian diplomatic machine went into overdrive to play up other withdrawals from the summit and suggest that Pakistan is isolated regionally.

But that is not the case and perhaps India should consider that it has drifted further away from its original goals.

Indeed, given India’s long-standing demand for a completion of the 2008 Mumbai attacks-related investigation and trials in Pakistan and the progress that was made on the Pathankot probe earlier this year, it ought to be apparent that slamming the door shut on dialogue will see little progress even in areas where both sides have long pledged to cooperate.

The Heart of Asia conference would be a welcome forum in which to pick up the threads of bilateral dialogue because security, economic and political cooperation in the region are at its core objectives, while Afghanistan is a country that Pakistan and India need to have an open dialogue about.

While Mr Modi has shown alacrity in trying to whip up domestic support for electoral purposes, he has proven himself to be an unexpectedly positive risk-taker externally. After all, it was last Christmas that the Indian prime minister briefly stopped in Lahore on his way back to New Delhi from Kabul.

A handshake with a visiting senior Pakistani official should not be impossible a mere 11 months later.

Arguably, given Mr Modi’s own hawkish bent, now is the time for another opening: if Mr Modi believes the Pakistani military dictates India policy, then why not see what a new chief has in mind first?

Consensus on economy


THE Pakistan Business Council has issued a call for a national consensus on economic matters which merit detailed attention from the political leadership. As the government celebrates its achievements on the economic front, more and more voices are pointing out that the real work on the economy needs to begin now. The PBC points out that neglect of the domestic industry must be addressed, and capacity building and reforms at the FBR are necessary for a more meaningful revival of growth and a robust revenue effort that will broaden the tax base rather than burden compliant taxpayers further. Appeals for a consensus on a core set of economic reforms have been sounded in the past as well, such as the famous effort to have a charter of economy. The PBC’s call for a consensus is much less ambitious than that, and for that reason perhaps more practical.

Some of the demands of the business community are impossible to meet, such as one window through which business can interact with government. But other demands are far more practical, such as the simplification of tax returns and the rationalisation of tax policy so that the growing burden being placed on compliant businesses can be mitigated. The super tax, for instance, has been pointed out by numerous business leaders as an arbitrary and ad hoc measure that ought to have been eliminated this July, but was instead renewed for another year, with all indications that it will now become a permanent feature. Arbitrary and ad hoc revenue policy of this sort, in the face of growing expenditure requirements, whether for security or infrastructure, dampen the growth engine and defeat the purpose of massive public investments that are designed to kick-start growth. Future growth cannot be built on large public-spending programmes alone, especially in the face of falling exports and the neglect of domestic industry serving the national market. The government needs to use its remaining time in power to focus on domestic industry and exports and embark upon a reform path forward. On top of that, it needs to utilise its political reflexes to build a consensus around a core set of economic policies, including reform of the power sector, public-sector entities, and the tax machinery, so that the changes that are needed do not fall victim to politics. Instead of celebrating macroeconomic stability, this would be better utilisation of its energies.

Edhi’s imperilled legacy


IT is no secret that much in Pakistan is driven by personalities and patronage politics. There are not really that many instances where a concerted attempt has been made to strengthen institutions, so that their functioning remains independent of those who happen to occupy the seats of power. As such, it is tragic that an absolutely crucial institution is in danger of falling victim to the personality phenomenon. The Edhi Foundation has for decades taken up the challenge that an unresponsive, inefficient state has no interest in tackling, or lacks the capacity to do so. It has earned worldwide renown for the role it plays in serving the poorest, most vulnerable and most abused sections of society, and for building up its vast network solely on donations and with admirable transparency. And yet, with the passing of its founder Abdul Sattar Edhi in July, things seem to have changed. At a conference organised by the Pakistan Islamic Medical Association in Karachi on Saturday, Faisal Edhi — on whose shoulders the mantle of leadership has fallen — said that donations have decreased steeply since his father’s death, which is obviously causing great hurdles in the humanitarian work being undertaken.

The fact is that while the elder Edhi may have been the most widely recognised face of the foundation, the work that was and is being done has involved the efforts of thousands of selfless individuals moved by compassion, and inspired by their leader. It is nothing short of unfair to assume that with Edhi gone, things will no longer be the same at his foundation. Faisal Edhi has, in fact, demonstrated the will and capacity to take both his parents’ work forward, putting in long man-hours on the ground at grim scenes during his father’s lifetime and afterwards. The foundation still has large numbers of people to serve; it would be a shame indeed if the death of Edhi marked a downward turning point for it.

Published in Dawn, November 30th, 2016
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Old Friday, December 02, 2016
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Default December 1st, 2016

Police reform


POLICE brutality and abuse of authority are problems law-enforcement agencies worldwide have to contend with. However, in Pakistan, it appears that black sheep in uniform can make a mockery of the law with impunity. As documented in this paper’s Tuesday edition, a number of police officers in Karachi have been involved in kidnappings for ransom in the chaotic metropolis. These include policemen of the rank of SHO and inspector. These crooked cops have kidnapped traders and businessmen, barged into homes and demanded millions of rupees in ransom. In fact, their behaviour has been that of gangland thugs, not officers of the law. One individual even had the gall to use an official police van to collect ransom.

Karachi is certainly not alone when it comes to policemen committing crimes. Despite the sacrifices and efforts of honest officers to fight crime, the image that prevails in Pakistan is of a corrupt, inefficient force that preys on the citizenry and is beholden to its political masters. For many years, officialdom has been talking of police reform, yet few visible changes have been observed in the workings of police departments countrywide. Perhaps the main problem is that the legislative and administrative framework that governs policing here is outdated. Apart from KP, where a new police law was introduced earlier this year, the other provinces and regions of Pakistan either function under the Police Act of 1861, or under a hybrid of this law and the Police Order, 2002. Aping the colonial model has produced dismal results, as today’s challenges are entirely different. Today, rather than worrying about controlling rowdyism or nabbing pickpockets, police officers have to deal with sophisticated and ruthless militants and criminal syndicates. Unless the legal and administrative structure is changed to respond to the needs of the day, criminality within the force will be difficult to eliminate.

Experts have stressed the need for community policing; instead of the image of the police officer as an ‘outsider’, what is needed is the recruitment of bright and service-oriented men and women who are known in their communities and neighbourhoods and are able to build bridges with citizens. Moreover, officers of repute must be given security of tenure and not transferred due to political whims. An independent system of lodging and investigating claims of police abuse must also be instituted. Police officers need to be given competitive service structures, with good pay and benefits; if individuals resort to corrupt practices thereafter, they must be shown the door. The federal, provincial and local governments, and civil society representatives, must all give their input on how to reform the police. Specifically, there are many serving and retired officers of impeccable repute that should be consulted on how to fix the rot. Above all, those who break the law while in uniform must be brought to justice.

Online abuse hotline


AS many women already know, the online space is not a level playing field — and violence is not always physical. The freedom that the internet affords can, in the hands of depraved and unscrupulous individuals, lead to consequences that can take a serious toll on women’s emotional well-being as well as their personal and work relationships. From trolling to blackmailing with images of an intimate nature posted on social media forums, women are subjected to a gamut of online abuse. The launch of Pakistan’s first cyber harassment hotline today by the advocacy group Digital Rights Foundation is thus a timely and much-needed initiative. It will provide legal advice, digital security support, psychological counselling and a referral system for those that call in for help.

Online abuse directed at women is a global problem. However, it takes on a particularly dark edge in societies such as Pakistan. Here, traditional notions of honour, shame and social acceptance come into violent conflict with modern, digital means of communication and information-sharing. Spurned suitors, former partners and even complete strangers can use social media or their smartphones as a means of shaming their target through explicit images, fake or otherwise. Those working to promote a safe digital environment describe online abuse as a ‘silent epidemic’, with many at the receiving end unwilling to speak to family members about it in order to avoid further humiliation and/or for fear that the hard-won freedom to study or work will be lost. Some have even committed suicide, unable to deal with the relentless harassment. Conservative norms, as with other crimes against women, thus end up shielding perpetrators from the consequences of their actions. It takes a brave woman such as the teacher in Lahore, whose story appeared in this paper yesterday, to stand her ground against family elders urging her to reach an out-of-court settlement with her harasser, and instead see to it that he was punished under the law. The man, who had hacked into her Facebook account and uploaded doctored images of her on it, was sentenced to two years in prison. It is, therefore, important to have a hotline where victims of harassment can seek assistance and informed advice; the media too should take up the issue. While the Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act, 2016, tends to excessively limit personal freedoms, a judicious use of this law can deter people from committing the crime of cyber harassment.

HIV testing


WORLD AIDS Day — that is being observed today — reminds us that governments need to address gaps in HIV prevention, testing and treatment services. Even with the widespread availability of drug treatment, a latest UN report points to the spread of new infections among adults because millions miss out on life-saving treatment. The reasons for this include the low rates of testing and adherence to treatment — this is partly a result of the stigma attached to HIV infection. In Pakistan, the absence of preventive strategies and low antiretroviral therapy coverage thanks to flawed policies has increased infection rates. Factors for HIV transmission include poverty, low literacy and gender-related discrimination, ignorance about the disease and societal stigma that prevents victims from seeking a diagnosis. With high HIV rates prevailing in traditional risk groups — injecting drug users and transgender sex workers — proper treatment and monitoring through basic health systems, safe blood transfusions, and preventing mother-to-child transmission are part of the solution.

From 2005 to 2015, HIV infections increased from 8,360 to 45,990. Situated along the busiest drug-trafficking corridors, Pakistan has increased drug usage involving the utilisation of infected, shared syringes. Priority must be given to detoxification and rehabilitation services alongside HIV testing and treatment. Sustained public-awareness drives against drugs and advocating safe sex are part of the fight. Because devolution has reversed many gains made by the National AIDS Control Programme, multi-sector coordination at the federal and provincial levels should be prioritised. In KP, the jail population, which includes many drug users, remains at high risk. Unfortunately, the provincial AIDS Control Programme has received zero finances for two years and social taboos are attached to distributing condoms among vulnerable groups. Given that the Pakistan AIDS Strategy (2015-2020) aims to curb new infections and improve the health of those living with HIV, disease-control plans must be shared. To add, community home-based healthcare that also focuses on HIV prevention could help raise awareness.

Published in Dawn December 1st, 2016
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Default December 2nd, 2016

Civil-military ties


A new army chief does not automatically suggest a reset in institutional relations, but it is an opportunity for all sides to re-evaluate their approaches to a central and common challenge: civil-military relations.

In the days-old tenure of army chief Gen Qamar Bajwa, so far there has been no indication of how his approach differs, if at all, from that of his predecessor, retired Gen Raheel Sharif. However, there are obvious areas in which improvement can and should be sought.

To begin with, a historical perspective, a problem far older than simply the former army chief’s tenure, in the military needs adjustment. The perspective is that the military has both the right and a need to steer national security and foreign policies — a belief rooted in historical anomalies and that is very much separated from the constitutionally mandated institutional scheme of things.

Unhappily, in recent years, the encroachment has gone beyond narrow, older confines and spilled over into a bewildering array of civilian priorities. Therefore, from the Karachi operation, conceived of and initiated by the federal government, to the contours of CPEC, and from essentially treating Balochistan as a national security issue to suggesting economic priorities, the military’s policy imperatives and fingerprints are unmistakeable.

It may not be a priority for Gen Bajwa to undertake a review of the vast encroachments in the civilian domain, but it should be — as several military leaders before him have discovered, the greater the incursions, the more likely the civilian leadership is to fixate on them at the cost of focusing on genuine democratic and governance deficits.

Perhaps a starting point could be for the military to discard the implicit destabilising option — that in times of crisis and civil-military tensions, a military takeover remains the ultimate option. A clear statement in this regard, like retired Gen Sharif’s public statement 10 months in advance that he would quit office on schedule, could go some way in setting the right tone in the latest era of inter-institutional ties.

Yet, the problem is clearly not of the military’s making alone. Military encroachment has been cheered, encouraged and even demanded by civilian leaders in recent years and over the decades. Be it the latter-day obsession with a so-called third umpire or previous-era exhortations to Article 58(2b)-empowered presidents and all-powerful army chiefs, civilian opposition parties of all stripes have at some point or the other been guilty of themselves undermining democratic precepts.

It remains the case that the surest path to strengthening the democratic process is when democrats put the system ahead of personal political ambitions.

Finally, democratic progress is not and should not be seen as a zero-sum game. Since the transition to democracy started anew in 2008, both the military and civilians have benefited from democratic continuity.

Companies Ordinance


THERE is little doubt that the Companies Ordinance of 1984 was in dire need of an overhaul. The main corporate regulator, the Securities and Exchange Commission, needed to be strengthened significantly to be able to tackle the growing power of private capital in the economy, and disclosure requirements also had to be updated in a world where ownership patterns of companies can be concealed easily using offshore jurisdictions. The government appears to have made an attempt to do something along these lines with the new Companies Ordinance, but in bypassing parliament it has made a tactical error. Legislation of such importance, with many detailed clauses that have great impact on the conduct of business in the country, ought to have clearly been presented before parliament and debated in detail, with comments and feedback from the corporate sector, before being passed into law. Parliamentarians who are objecting to the ordinance have a point, and the government should find a way to work with them to navigate this legislation further.

A closer examination of the legislation also shows some troubling signs. The devil, it would appear, is in the details. For example, whereas the powers of the SECP are being augmented, as well as its autonomy, the discretion to exercise these powers will lie with the “minister in charge”, according to the legislation. This means the government will in effect exercise these powers as per its own discretion. As a rule, regulators can only be expected to discharge their obligations properly if they are empowered to act independently of the government, and their staff is protected from government interference through fixed terms of service. The legislation appears to be carrying out a bit of a sleight of hand on this important issue, by first empowering the SECP, and then making the augmented powers subordinate to the government itself. This is a risky configuration of power since it can potentially politicise the regulator, and open its actions up to allegations of being politically motivated. There are other examples of clauses that leave one wondering as to their intent. For this reason, considering how ambitious the scope of the legislation is, and the immense impact it can have on investment in the country, it should have been debated in parliament in close detail and scrutinised carefully before being allowed to become a law. The government should move to build a larger consensus.

Karachi clean-up drive


KARACHI’S citizens will no doubt welcome the 100-day cleanliness campaign launched on Thursday by the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation. The drive — initiated by Mayor Waseem Akhtar — intends to focus on the key areas of sanitation and road repairs. Anyone who lives in Karachi will testify that the metropolis is suffering from an advanced stage of urban decay. Despite being Pakistan’s largest city and commerce hub, Karachi currently resembles a large garbage dump, with crumbling infrastructure and potholed roads. In fact, in the World Bank’s Karachi City Diagnostic Report, the bank says that the metropolis confronts “severe environmental challenges” which include “a high incidence of air, land and water, including marine, pollution”. Much of this, as the report says, is caused by inadequate waste management. The report observes that less than 60pc of Karachi’s people have access to sewerage facilities, while the same percentage of solid waste is not collected and transferred to dump sites. In fact, much of the waste is either left rotting in neighbourhoods, or is burnt, which creates a choking miasma that envelops localities. Keeping these grim details in mind, the mayor’s effort is much needed, if much delayed, though it is also a fact that Karachi only received an elected city administration earlier this year after an eight-year gap.

The mayor says he is doing what he can with limited resources. What the city needs is a permanent waste-management system. However, the fact is that the Sindh government controls two key areas that should be under municipal control: waste management and sewerage facilities. The city’s problems are complex and deep-rooted, and nothing short of a sustainable master plan can address its woes. But as an initial step, all civic functions, along with financial control, must be under the mayor’s jurisdiction. Waseem Akhtar says the Sindh chief minister has assured him of support; the best way the provincial government can show its support is by transferring all municipal functions to the elected local bodies across Sindh.

Published in Dawn, December 2nd, 2016
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Default December 3rd, 2016

Government’s wrong focus


AS the Panama Papers saga winds on, a familiar and regrettable pattern is asserting itself: the government appears to be using its legal and political worries as an excuse to not focus on governance issues. Once again, the country has a government that is sidestepping its responsibilities and implicitly claiming political persecution. To be sure, even at its highest point politically, the present PML-N government has not had structural reforms as a priority, nor a particularly strong legislative agenda. Macroeconomic stabilisation, an avowed goal, has been pursued according to the seemingly whimsical priorities of Finance Minister Ishaq Dar and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. So, while there have been some successes, a persistent critique of the PML-N government has been that it has neglected systemic reforms in favour of potentially unsustainable gains.

Be that as it may, the PML-N has found a way to distract itself even from its own narrow goals. The usual foil has been the PTI and its endless campaign to unsettle or de-seat the government. Occasionally, the problem has been a military establishment that the government has perceived as encroaching on civilian domain. Always, however, there has been a ready excuse, as is there again — external forces are preventing the government from focusing wholly on its priorities. Ministers including Khurram Dastgir and Muhammad Zubair have complained about the politics of agitation; government advisers and public relations figures have lamented the allegations against the first family; and seemingly the whole government machinery is distracted by the need to deny any wrongdoing by the Sharifs and to denounce opposition figures. Cabinet meetings, already rare, seem to have become a non-priority. Inter-provincial forums, already moribund, have been virtually forgotten. Events critical to future planning, such as the census, are debated in a desultory manner. The only matter that appears to animate the government is the Panama Papers and the negative light the revelations contained therein have cast on the first family.

To be sure, few, if any, in the political opposition are interested in anything other than the Panama Papers, the ongoing Supreme Court hearings and the colourful media trials staged in the electronic media on a daily basis. Gone, at least in recent weeks, has been any opposition interest in electoral reforms. Next month, the sunset clause in the 21st Amendment will trigger itself and military courts will stand disbanded — but there is no parliamentary interest in judicial reforms evident. Yet, the greater burden is necessarily on the elected government, not the political opposition. As the chief custodian of the democratic project, the government has a responsibility to not only govern, but to demonstrate that governance is the primary priority no matter the temporary distractions. The government needs to do much better.

State of universities

DESPITE efforts by the state to create a world-class higher education system, Pakistani universities — especially in the public sector — have largely not been successful in promoting outstanding scholarship. Perhaps the prime reason for this is the ad hocism that prevails in the higher education sector, indeed, as it does in other vital areas of national life. As reported in this paper on Friday, the Lahore High Court ordered the Punjab government to hire permanent vice chancellors in four public-sector varsities in the province. The court felt there was no room in the law for appointing acting vice chancellors for an indefinite period. When it comes to management of tertiary institutions in Pakistan, there is much that needs improvement. Suffice it to say, those in senior administrative posts at universities must be selected on merit, should be free to run their institutions as per the law without political or bureaucratic meddling, and have stellar academic records. Unfortunately, in some major public higher educational institutions, individuals have been appointed whose credentials have been questioned; some have been accused of plagiarism. Perhaps these incidents should initiate soul-searching among federal and provincial authorities on how to better manage universities in this country.

One major area of concern is the power struggle between the centre and the provinces over devolution of higher education in the aftermath of the 18th Amendment. While this amendment was passed in 2010, today, only Sindh and Punjab have their own provincial higher education commissions. Whether it is the centre that is reluctant to devolve power to the federating units, or the provinces which lack capacity, the stakeholders must seriously discuss the issues standing in the way of better management and improvement of tertiary education in Pakistan. The provinces should take the initiative to reform the tertiary sector, while the federal HEC can play a supervisory and complementary role. Both sides must work in a cooperative spirit and eschew combative postures. The focus should be on hiring university managers on merit, with freedom to operate their institutions, while the zero-tolerance policy concerning academic crimes such as plagiarism must be enforced across the board. Unless this critical management issue is resolved, our public universities will continue to churn out below par graduates, unable to compete globally. With dedicated educators, an environment of academic freedom and inquiry, and a strong adherence to ethical principles, our varsities can hopefully turn the corner.

Reopening Gadani


THE ship-breakers association is calling on the government to allow for a reopening of their business in Gadani after last month’s massive tragedy that resulted in the death of at least 26 workers and left scores injured. Yes, work has to resume at the site as an indefinite closure would affect business and livelihoods, but the government must first ask the association what sort of safety measures have been installed to avoid future accidents — and ensure that these meet international standards. On top of that, the business owners should be asked about compensation to the families of the deceased and injured. Gadani has become notorious as a hazardous place of work, where, to save a little money, the owners of shipyard businesses refuse to invest in workers’ safety. A detailed report of the myriad failures that led to the tragedy ought to be drawn up, with recommendations on what steps the owners have to take before being allowed to resume operations. It would be a travesty if operations were resumed without any lessons being learnt.

The business owners should also be asked what penalties should apply to them in any future accident. How much responsibility are they willing to take for the well-being of their workers, in the name of whose livelihoods they have issued their call for resumption of work? Their argument that somehow work on CPEC projects is being impacted by the closure of their businesses is disingenuous at best. How much of the steel being used in CPEC projects is sourced from their work? The owners must understand that it cannot be business as usual after such a horrific tragedy. They are entrusted with the lives of the labourers in their factories and yards, and if any harm comes to them during their work, the owners must own their share of responsibility. Are the owners prepared to prioritise the well-being and safety of the workers? The yard must not be allowed to open until the answer to this question is in the affirmative.

Published in Dawn, December 3rd, 2016
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Default December 4th, 2016

Commission Inquiry Bill

THE Pakistan Commission of Inquiry Bill, 2016, was passed by the National Assembly this week — on the fourth attempt by the PML-N government. It was a master class in how not to legislate. First, the PML-N is unable to get its own house in order. The passage of the bill was stymied time and again because the PML-N, which has a majority in the National Assembly, could not persuade enough of its members to be in attendance to pass the quorum threshold. That itself is a remarkable indictment of the PML-N’s general approach to democratic institutions and parliament in particular. To blame rank and filers and backbenchers alone for their absence would be wrong. When the prime minister himself rarely visits parliament and cabinet ministers routinely skip Assembly proceedings, it is unlikely in the extreme that MNAs with no specific parliamentary duties will be interested in attending the sessions.

Second, the government has been unable to adequately rebut the opposition’s claim that the bill is intended to somehow try and shield Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and members of his family from a thorough and independent inquiry into their wealth and assets. To be sure, the opposition is indulging in a great deal of politics and theatrics with their allegations and the government does appear to have presented a bill that strengthens the present commission of inquiry system. However, the dispute between the opposition and the government since the Panama Papers were revealed to the world in April has principally been about the order in which an inquiry should proceed. The opposition has rightly insisted that the prime minister be investigated first, a demand that the government has fiercely resisted. The bill passed by the National Assembly this week may allow for the government’s preference for a simultaneous and expansive inquiry into all manner of individuals, public and private, to prevail.

Third, the government’s willingness to bypass the ordinary systems and norms of parliament may be tested again. While there is a hostile legislative atmosphere over the bill, it is the PML-N that has helped create it with its tendency to work unilaterally and without taking other parties along. Consider that a bill passed by the National Assembly solely by the PML-N has no chance of passage in the Senate, where it is short of a majority. The government does have the option to attempt to get a bill approved in a joint sitting of parliament, but that is a roughshod approach that tends to have negative consequences for parliament’s smooth functioning. Moreover, what does the government hope to achieve by creating the space for an empowered inquiry commission that the combined opposition will in any case not be willing to accept? A commission will only be credible if it is accepted by both sides of the parliamentary aisle.

Fourth Schedule Farce


THE Fourth Schedule is a piece of legislation that no one in authority seems to quite know what to do with. That certainly ought not to be the case in a country engaged in an extended, multi-tiered battle against extremism. According to Section 11EE of the ATA, the Fourth Schedule is to include “any person who is an activist, office-bearer or an associate of an organisation kept under observation … or proscribed … or … affiliated with any group or organisation suspected to be involved in terrorism or sectarianism”. To prevent them from propagating their noxious views, the law — with certain caveats — does not allow these individuals to visit institutions of learning, training or residence where persons under 21 years of age are found. Similarly, public places such as restaurants, television and radio stations or airports are out of bounds for them. They are also forbidden from taking part in public meetings or processions, or from being present at an enclosed location in connection with any public event.

That is exactly what is needed to address the problem of extremist narratives continuing to be perpetuated because the leaders of many ultra-right groups that have been banned remain in contact with the public. However, by applying this law in fits and starts, the government defeats its objectives. For example, in the wake of the Lahore park bombing in March, it decided to arrest all 2,000-plus individuals included in the Fourth Schedule, but that did not materialise. Recently, the Lahore High Court allowed ASWJ chief Farooq Ludhianvi, also listed in the Fourth Schedule, to contest the Jhang by-election — although he subsequently decided to withdraw in favour of another candidate. While the court may have had its reasons for its decision, the wide-ranging restrictions listed under the Fourth Schedule should preclude anyone included in it from doing so. The lackadaisical manner in which the list is maintained is also a matter of concern. As reported some months ago, of some 8,000 names on a consolidated list provided to Nacta by the provinces, GB, AJK and Islamabad, 20pc may be deceased and 5pc have either left the country or are too old and infirm to pose any threat. Such a cavalier attitude makes the state appear weak, that too at a time when it is doubly important that it should be asserting its authority.

Climate impact


THERE is growing evidence, gathered informally by journalists, that the impact of climate change on Pakistan goes far beyond the abnormal rain pattern we have seen in the monsoon season. The erratic nature of the rains, as well as temperature changes during the onset and end of winter also appear to be impacting the sowing season. When the rains fail, or come in thunderous showers that sweep away crops, the impact is visible. But the more subtle result shows up in the disruption of sowing patterns, evidence of which is piling up through numerous reports citing farmers as their source. The agriculture sector has been in a sustained slump for many years now, usually attributed to the collapse of commodity prices. But perhaps we should ask how much of the situation results from the disruptive impact of climate change. There is no way to be certain of this yet, but the piling up of anecdotal evidence merits a detailed study of sowing patterns and yields and their relationship to winter temperature changes.

There is now a clear case to be made for such a study. It would require close coordination among various government departments — the ministries of agriculture and climate change, the Met department and provincial revenue authorities. It would also require expertise that may not available locally to determine the extent of the impact and if it can be mitigated. The effects are felt widely, from lowered yields to elevated vulnerability to pest attacks. A detailed survey of agriculture yields, temperature anomalies, seasonal changes, water flows and availability during critical times, covering a period of at least 10 years, is now necessary. If an adverse impact is confirmed, then a second study is needed to develop mitigation strategies. Agriculture is the backbone of our economy. If it is being swept by a powerful adverse force such as climate change, then the government must determine what can be done to help. It’s high time the government made efforts to mitigate its impact.

Published in Dawn December 4th, 2016
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New army postings


ARMY chief Gen Qamar Bajwa has installed a team of his choosing in senior military posts; now, the country must wait to see the priorities of the new-look military leadership. Certainly, there is an obvious, consensus area of focus: working with the civilian leadership to take the fight against militancy, terrorism and extremism to the next stage via the National Action Plan. While NAP has been criticised both for being too general in its goals and too weak in its implementation, it remains an important document for the long-term stability and security of the country. If the civilian leadership, at both the national and provincial level, is willing to rededicate itself to NAP, the new military leadership should be in a position to deliver maximal results in the next phase of the long war.

There are several reasons for cautious optimism. First, Gen Bajwa appears to have given preference to officers with counterterrorism experience fighting internal militancy and criminal threats in his selections for important military posts. The choice of Karachi corps commander Gen Naveed Mukhtar for DG ISI and DG Rangers Maj Gen Bilal Akbar for Chief of General Staff suggests where Gen Bajwa’s priorities lie — the two Karachi-based generals have accumulated extensive counterterrorism experience. Second, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, in personally selecting Gen Bajwa from among the available choices, has an obvious incentive to work with the new military leadership to find a way to not only stabilise civil-military ties, but to also make a fresh attempt at policy convergence between the civilians and military in the national security and foreign policy domains. Mr Sharif and his government have lagged in their commitment to the fight against militancy and now have an opportunity to make amends.

Third, as the disturbing events in Chakwal on Monday, have shown yet again, the problem of violent extremism in Punjab has grown manifold. While Punjab is far from the only province in which extremism and militancy have proliferated, it is in some ways the final frontier: most indigenous militancy and extremism networks either have a presence in the province or are headquartered there. Where the now retired Gen Raheel Sharif had rightly focused his tenure on counter-insurgency operations in Fata, Gen Bajwa will likely find that consolidation of those gains will require sustained efforts to dismantle the urban- and Punjab-based militancy and extremism networks. For too long, the problem of extremism has been regarded as a separate and later battle. Certainly, the methods of combating extremism will have to be different to those used to attack active militant networks. But there is a continuum between extremism and actual militancy wherein the former creates the conditions for the latter. The war against militancy must be taken to its logical conclusion.

Iranian suggestion


OTHER than the concept of the ummah, there is very little that binds the world’s Muslim-majority states together, especially in the realm of geopolitics. This is particularly true in the Middle East, where regional powers Saudi Arabia and Iran have divergent views on nearly all the major questions of the day. Perhaps this lack of unity is best exemplified by the state of the OIC, an organisation that is today known more for its languidness and anodyne statements regarding the state of the Muslim world than for effective cooperation. In such an atmosphere, does the Iranian suggestion calling for Muslim states to form a united bloc against terrorism hold any promise? Speaking at a conference recently, speaker of the Iranian Majlis Ali Larijani called for Muslim states — his own, along with Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, Iraq and Pakistan — to form a bloc that would tackle, amongst other things, the threat of terrorism. Considering the fraught relations that Riyadh and Tehran have been experiencing over the past few decades, this suggestion is welcome as Mr Larijani assured the Saudis that Iran was not “their enemy”. These remarks come in the aftermath of recent statements issued by the Gulf Arab states in which they accused Iran of “destabilising” the region, as well as questionable observations by the British prime minister about the need to counter the Iranian “threat”, whilst on a visit to the Gulf.

The biggest difference between Iranian and Saudi regional policy is, of course, over Syria and Yemen, where both states have supported opposing factions in brutal conflicts. Iran’s statement that it is opposed to “warmongering in Syria and Yemen” should be followed up by efforts by Tehran and Riyadh to bring these horrible conflicts to a negotiated close. More than the external powers, if the Saudis and Iranians can decide on a modus vivendi for the region, the current wave of violence and hate engulfing the Middle East can be contained. This may seem like a naive hope at the moment, but both capitals need to show boldness and statesmanship to bring peace. One common enemy both Iran and Saudi Arabia share is the militant Islamic State group; perhaps countering this terrorist outfit can become a point of unity for both. It is high time Muslim states turned noble intentions into achievable goals.

KP’s houbara ban


It is that time of the year when the houbara bustards and their hunters — the Arab princes who like to spend their winters chasing these migratory birds — descend on Pakistan.

Cleared by a court ruling at the start of 2016, licensed houbara hunting is seen as a lucrative option for Pakistan — one that helps our ruling elite win favours from nations with considerable wealth. But strangely enough, it is considered so crucial that the state here is not at all shy of calling it a foreign policy requirement: according to the government’s submissions, allowing the hunting of the houbara is an actual need.

Indeed, it is senseless that foreign policy should be tied to a significant wildlife concern in the country. No matter what largesse our regional allies might bestow on us in return for hunting permits, it is not likely to make up for the dwindling numbers of a species that is practically being driven to extinction by hunters who have no qualms about exceeding the bag limit.

In these circumstances, it is satisfying to note that at least one province — KP — has refused a Gulf prince permission to hunt the bird in its jurisdiction.

There is an indication of some consistency in dealing with the issue. Sometime ago, there had been reports that the PTI set-up in the province had dared to fine a royal for hunting without a licence.

There have been suggestions in concerned circles that the same kind of zero tolerance towards houbara hunting has to be extended to all parts of the country where the bird finds a home during the winter months.

Some experts have called for the sustainable hunting of the houbara, where bag limits are firmly adhered to and locals are involved in the conservation of the bird. Unfortunately, there has been little effort towards this aim.

The government must consider a total ban on houbara hunting unless the number of birds goes up to sustainable levels through careful conservation measures.

Published in Dawn, December 14th, 2016
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Default December 25th, 2016

Madressah reform


THE government has been going around in circles where madressah reform is concerned. Its weak attempt at getting these religious schools to agree to uniform control by the state bore little fruit, and the emphasis is now on another old favourite of the authorities: curriculum reform. On Friday, the federal minister for religious affairs stressed the necessity of educational standards at seminaries matching mainstream trends, but there has been little discussion on how to implement such recommendations. This, more or less, sums up the government’s indecision regarding the subject of madressahs.

It is a case of officials not wanting to take the risks entailed. Like the Musharraf regime and the PPP set-up before it, the PML-N government has been reluctant, to the point of being afraid, to deal with the problem. Even though the NAP consensus was expected to empower the PML-N to undertake reform, the campaign to do so has been helter-skelter. There have been several slogans and words about the need to upgrade the seminaries and about the basic principle of streamlining the sources of their finances and ideally creating a system where the state itself allocates the funds. And the talk about curriculum reform has been unending. Nevertheless, there has been growing realisation in this debate that madressahs are not simply the result of the failure of the ‘secular’ education system. Growing conservatism in society is a big factor in the mushrooming of madressahs across the country.

There have been so many assessments of the reasons why the reform campaign has failed to take off. Let us add to it a fundamental assertion. Pakistan is still some distance away from understanding a basic fact about these religious schools. The country seeks to deal with — albeit half-heartedly — the seminaries through the five boards that represent five schools of thought or sects in Islam. What is still not accepted is that underneath there are so many divisions. There are a large number of seminaries that work as satellites without any outside control and aided by their own sources of finances. They consider themselves as not answerable administratively to the board they might be linked to in theory on the basis of schools or sects. This is against the old norm where seminaries belonging to a school of thought or sect would be under the administrative influence of an order or individual. Authorities wanting change will have to find a direct route to the madressah down the road before it can be brought under a chain of command. As far as the question of sources of funding for the madressahs is concerned, there is no group more capable of keeping an eye on this and on seminaries in general than the state’s own people at the grass roots: the local governments.

Stock exchange sale


AT long last the process of making Pakistan’s stock exchange independent of the powers of the broker community is reaching fruition. With the sale of a strategic stake in the newly created Pakistan Stock Exchange to a Chinese consortium, the country’s capital markets could well receive the boost that the fundamentals merit. A lot depends on how well the new investor can manage the peculiarities of the PSX. There are grounds to be confident though, since the consortium brings plenty of experience to the position, and the stock market here is not particularly complex or diversified. That gives the new investor much room to introduce and prioritise new products and deepen trading. A futures market would be one related development.

With the power of the broker community dwindling further now, the front-line regulator should also take a more aggressive stance with regard to malpractices and the enforcement of rules. Many companies are habitually late in filing their financial results but suffer little to no penalty. Also, there have been a number of cases where bogus companies have been allowed to float an IPO. Many other companies that have ceased to exist continue being traded. And, of course, that ultimate bugbear of the stock market — manipulative trading, where share prices are artificially inflated through pump-and-dump schemes. There is a wide area where the PSX needs to strengthen its performance before the real potential of the country’s stock market can be unlocked. With the arrival of the new consortium, we will now see if the original vision behind the road to demutualisation will bring in the benefits that it promised at the outset. In addition to the stock market, the commodity exchange needs to be deepened as well. Considering Pakistan is a large wheat-growing country, there is massive scope for a commodity exchange to flourish. Thus far, widespread rackets in the agricultural sector have pre-empted this, and the commodity sector remains largely informal as a result. The new consortium in the stock exchange has its work cut out for it, but if it takes its responsibilities seriously and succeeds in curbing the kinds of practices that have given the stock market a bad name in the past, it could yet deliver a measurable boost to the economy. Perhaps we might actually see the day when the stock is used to raise capital for investment as well.

Xmas peace train


CHRISTMAS cheer got a head start this year. The Christmas Peace Train, launched by the government as a gesture of solidarity with Pakistani Christians to mark their most important religious festival, departed from Islamabad on Thursday on a 15-day countrywide tour. It arrived in Peshawar the next day carrying some 60 Christians, and is scheduled to reach Karachi on Dec 31. The festive carriages are painted red and decorated with Christmas imagery and there is, of course, the obligatory Santa on board. Described as the first train launched in South Asia as a part of Christmas celebrations, the initiative is a joint venture of the railways and human rights ministries. During its journey to Karachi, the train will stop at various places in Punjab and Sindh and offer a chance for locals to interact with the passengers.

In a country with a far from stellar record of religious tolerance, the Christmas Peace Train is deserving of appreciation. Ironically, the considerable police presence around the train, as seen in the media, itself illustrates why such an initiative is welcome — and also, despite Pakistan’s war against extremism, that it is too early to claim that minority communities here can practise their faith freely without fear of reprisal. For far too long, as religious extremism increased, those belonging to minority faiths have found themselves with their backs to the wall and a state unwilling or unable to do its duty to protect their lives and property. As everyone knows only too well, the state’s policy of appeasing dangerously fanatical tendencies and extremist groups has cost this country dearly — both in terms of the blood of innocents and Pakistan’s international image. The Christmas Peace Train thus represents a much-needed celebration of inclusivity and pluralism. However, with reports that the Sindh legislature may amend the recently passed law against forced conversions, and with blasphemy prisoners such as Asia Bibi who belong to minority faiths and are shown no mercy, is this anything more than window dressing?

Source: Editorials
Published in Dawn December 25th, 2016
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Default January 22nd, 2017

Parachinar bombing


A DEADLY terrorist attack with a grim death toll — the blast in a busy market in Parachinar, Kurram Agency, yesterday is a tragically familiar occurrence. Parachinar itself has suffered repeated violence: in June 2013, 57 people died in twin blasts in a market and at a taxi stand; and in December 2015, a market bombing killed 25. Nationally, the long war against militancy continues — while overall violence is significantly lower compared to several years ago, major attacks continue sporadically across the country. The latest Parachinar attack, though, raises at least three questions. One, do state officials fully understand the sectarian dimensions of militancy? Attacks in Shia-dominated Parachinar are invariably seen through the prism of sectarianism and the militants claiming such attacks themselves emphasise a sectarian motive. Indeed, from Al Qaeda to the banned TTP to overtly sectarian groups such as the Islamic State and Lashkar-i-Jhangvi, the sectarian dimension is central to radical Islamic militancy. That is something that government officials need to bluntly acknowledge instead of soft-pedalling the problem.

Second, in Kurram Agency, in recent days leaders of local militias have rejected a government deadline to turn in their heavy weapons, arguing that IS and other militant groups are still operating in Kurram as well as neighbouring regions of Afghanistan. Yesterday’s attack also calls into question the security arrangements in the agency. At the moment it is not clear if the attack was carried out by a suicide bomber, as claimed by militant groups, or if it was the result of a bomb hidden in the fruit and vegetable crates that are transported from neighbouring Kohat, as alleged by local officials. Either way, a bomb was carried into the district despite the several security check posts that exist around Parachinar and Kurram Agency. It is the oldest of questions in this long war that never seems to be satisfactorily answered: was there a security lapse and, if so, will there be a revision of security measures and accountability for the lapses identified?

Third, after the ritual condemnations of the bombing by the political and military leadership, will attention turn to the languishing National Action Plan? Since the change of army command, there have been several meetings in which lip service has been paid to NAP implementation, but the gamut of actions contemplated under the policy continue to be only selectively enforced. And within the selective enforcement too, there is a great deal of variation in the degree of effectiveness. With the interior ministry still denied the extensive funding it has sought for NAP; with the interior minister making frequent pronouncements that contradict the job he is tasked with; and with Nacta still a moribund organisation, NAP has mostly come down to the will and priorities of the military leadership. The civilian leadership surely needs to do more.

PPP revival — again


IT may be fashionable to say that Benazir Bhutto’s son must overcome Asif Ali Zardari’s influence on his politics.

But the actual task of infusing some life into the PPP outside Sindh will require far more than Chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari having a freer hand to run the party.

The Zardari factor is something to contend with, as highlighted by the refrain accompanying the recent party activity including a rally from Lahore to Faisalabad.

Party organisation is daunting work in itself especially when much of it has been eaten into by others, especially the PTI.

There is no PPP organisation in Punjab and other vast areas in the country. And one can be frank about it: the cadres disappeared not because they had any principled differences with Mr Zardari.

They fled after they were convinced Mr Zardari was not likely to throw a big enough challenge to the Sharifs.

They tolerated and stayed with Mr Zardari until they were sure about his future. Now as he tries desperately to reclaim some of the old workers, Mr Bhutto-Zardari must restore his party’s status as a serious contender for power.

If this most difficult goal is achieved the chances of him winning them back will brighten.

There are issues with how he is going about it. The PPP chairman has been lashing out at the Sharifs without apparently considering it necessary to find fault with the party that has replaced the PPP as the main opposition to the PML-N.

At best his — indirect — references to Imran Khan’s potential, or lack of it, have been vague or subdued.

His mention of Z.A. Bhutto and his legacy today do not quite ignite the positive nostalgia they did in the past.

Even Ms Bhutto would appear to so many today to be lost somewhere deep in history. The PPP headed by Bhutto and then Benazir Bhutto is done and dusted.

There is more interest in finding out what the chairman’s answers are to the recent allegations of corruption against the PPP, and the workers want a new party altogether.

It would make sense if he were to choose to respond to some of these current allegations with facts at his public meetings. Also, it is important he take on the PTI simultaneously as he goes after the PML-N.

In the end, Mr Bhutto-Zardari must come up with positive examples from his own government in Sindh to start being relevant in Punjab and beyond.

Projects or photo ops?


THIS penchant for cutting ribbons and unveiling plaques that our government functionaries appear to have can get a little puzzling at times. It is government by photo op while the real nature of the projects being inaugurated amidst all the pageantry remains shrouded in mystery. A few days ago, we had an opportunity to witness a ribbon being cut for the second time for a project in Azad Kashmir. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had first done the needful 15 months ago at what was ostensibly the groundbreaking ceremony of the Gulpur hydropower plant. But oddly enough, this week the Private Power Infrastructure Board held another ‘foundation stone-laying ceremony’ for the same project. Someone in government needs to answer why the project is being inaugurated again, and, once that has been sorted out, why there has been a 15-month gap between the two ‘inaugurations’.

One explanation is that it has to do with delays in obtaining financial close on the project. It turns out that the prime minister had cut the ribbon before the project achieved financial close. But once that milestone was crossed, the PPIB could not resist the temptation of having a second round of fanfare. This excessive partiality for ceremonial self-congratulation could be taken in stride if there was evidence of competent follow-up on project selection and execution. But there is now a string of such ceremonial photo ops for projects whose merit has been cast in doubt — such as the Nandipur power plant, or initiatives that were later shelved because of their defective feasibility such as the Gadani Power Park. This rush for photo ops and bragging rights, quite apart from the absurdity of cutting a ribbon for the same project twice, is unseemly and lends the government’s development approach an air of amateurishness. Is it too much to ask that cutting ribbons, unveiling plaques and making congratulatory speeches be held off until some concrete progress on ongoing projects is achieved? It would certainly save many of us from an embarrassing spectacle.

Source: Editorials
Published in Dawn, January 22nd, 2017
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