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  #991  
Old Monday, November 14, 2016
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Default November 14th, 2016.

Date: Monday,November 14th, 2016


Slaughter of the innocents


The bomber struck in a remote area, almost certainly knowing that this would compound the difficulty of bringing aid to those that survived his actions, and so it proved. At least 52 died immediately and over 100 were injured. The figure for the dead will rise. Those that died were among a crowd of devotees performing a dhamaal or devotional dance at a Sufi shrine, by no means the first time that pacifist Sufis have been attacked and likely not the last. It is being reported that the suicide bomber was a teenager between 14 and 16 years, and also reported that this latest atrocity was being claimed by Islamic State (IS). Neither claim is verifiable but the IS claim comes through Amaq, a news agency to which it claims affiliation.

Speculation, much of it ill-informed, is rife as to who carried out the attack and why – perhaps as a reprisal for the killing of the leader of a banned group in a firefight in Hub last Friday, perhaps as a protest against the CPEC, perhaps as a purely sectarian act and perhaps it was the Indians – but the fact is that nobody knows and unless the security agencies get very lucky and capture alive one of those that planned and resourced the attack we may never know.

Balochistan has been the target several times this year. It is vast, thinly populated and home to any number of separatist and nationalist groups as well as the proxies and surrogates of organisations that are at least theoretically banned in Pakistan. In many instances they are ‘banned’ in name only and operate openly holding rallies and collecting funds. If the government wanted to convince us of its seriousness in terms of controlling banned organisations then ‘banned’ should be shown to mean ‘banned’ not some betwixt-and-between status that allows religious feathers to go unruffled. Yet again innocent people have been blown to bloody fragments, men women and children obliterated. Fatuous platitudes and empty condolences from on high will not repair ruined lives. Sadly, our expectation that anything will change as a result remains depressingly low.

Pollution crackdown


The City District Government Lahore (CDGL) has moved rather swiftly in attempt to mitigate environmental pollution hovering over Lahore that causes heavy smog, poor visibility, and various health concerns among children and adults every year. A ban on factories without emissions control practices has been established with some factories having been ordained to shut down operations altogether. While the stringency is good news for Lahore’s atmosphere, the two-month grace period given to factories to implement pollution control measures is quite harsh. A major undertaking such as this should be supportive of factories installing emissions control equipment, and the government, instead of pressurizing industrialists, should encourage and facilitate them in installing the best and most effective equipment that would prove worthy in the long-term. Such an issue of high national importance cannot be discussed superficially and measures executed haphazardly for the matter requires deep thought and input by environmental experts and policymakers to institute practices that will be suitable for decades to come.

This is not to say that the quick government action is unwelcome. It is an important matter because the live of Pakistan’s 182 million people are in danger, on account of inhaling noxious air. The pollution is also affecting the foods we eat, and considering the axiomatic saying, “we are what we eat,” the pollution is impacting us in more than one way, paving the way for genetic mutations for our future generations. Also, with recent trade and industry boosts, now is an opportune moment to implement environmental protection laws with boldly outlined consequences for factories that do not follow them. Environmental impact should be a part of health and safety training to spread awareness among all levels of factory workers because they are all stakeholders in creating a greener Pakistan. The need for measures such as the ones CDGL has introduced is twofold: one, because for any nation, human health and safety must be a top priority and two, because all citizens should bear the responsibility of contributing towards keeping one’s environment as green as possible.

Saying no to drugs


Drug use amongst the younger generation in Pakistan has been a cause for concern for years however up till now comprehensive anti-drug campaigns focusing on young people, have not existed. The Punjab government has now issued instructions to district education officers for enforcing the ban on drugs in educational institutions. The district authorities have also been advised to ensure that information regarding the impact of smoking on health is prominently displayed. The measure comes following a report presented to the Senate where an alarming increase in drugs was reported amongst private school students in Islamabad. Anecdotal evidence also points to an increase in drug use amongst college and university students.

Drug use is particularly dangerous for younger individuals since the chances of long-term addiction increase depending on age. For teenagers drugs act not only as stimulants but can also permanently alter the chemical makeup of the brain. Those who are unaware of the danger that drugs pose are more likely to use drugs through succumbing to peer pressure. Preventative measures such as awareness campaigns have been shown to be effective in reducing the incidences of drug usage amongst adolescents. The Punjab government’s directive is therefore laudable. However, it must be noted that the success of such schemes relies on proper implementation. Although Pakistan has a National Narcotics Control Committee and a National Anti-Narcotics Policy, campaigns to discourage drug use and to inform the public about the effects of drugs, not just smoking, are seldom seen. Provincial governments are required to make significant contributions to the success of this policy and perhaps the Punjab government’s initiative will prove to be one such step. The government should also look into establishing more rehabilitation centres which provide free counselling sessions, in coordination with schools and colleges, that are geared towards younger drug addicts to wean them off.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 14th, 2016.
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  #992  
Old Tuesday, November 22, 2016
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Default November 21st, 2016.

Date: Monday,November 21st, 2016.


Poverty dropping


Ask the average person in the street if they felt that the level of poverty in Pakistan had decreased and the answer is likely to be a somewhat puzzled ‘No’. Ask a statistician the same question and the answer is likely to be an unequivocal ‘Yes’ — and for good reason. Measuring poverty is not just about the rupee in the pocket it is multidimensional, and changes shape all the time. There are several measures of poverty currently in play but the World Bank is regarded as having a reliable track record when it comes to interpreting poverty indices and its report titled ‘Making Growth Matter’ tells us that the people of Pakistan have seen not just a small reduction in levels of poverty but a substantial one.

The number of homes with a flush toilet moved from 24 percent in 2002 to 49 percent in 2014. Perhaps to the surprise of nobody motorcycle ownership has increased in the same period from 2 percent to 18 percent. Households are able to spend more of their income on non-food items. Although food insecurity is still endemic food security for many has increased, and there have been significant dietary changes as well with greater diversity. Poor people are spending less on ‘cheap’ calories and more on chicken, eggs and fish as well as milk products, likewise the proportion of their income spent on vegetable and fruit.

Millions remain undeniably poor, but the nature of poverty is changing and is perceptibly reduced across a broad span of indicators. There is greater congruity between rural and urban diets and consumption patterns. A part of this reduction will be because of successive government policies, though the impact on poverty levels of the current dispensation is too early to measure objectively. The WB report runs counter to the stereotypical perception that Pakistan is an irredeemable basket case set on a steady spiral downwards. Seeking to create self-fulfilling prophecies serves nobody well, and broadens universal misperceptions both at home and abroad. Poverty is reducing. It is unlikely to be eradicated and the effects of reduction are going to be uneven and unequal. Rich we are not, less poor we are.

Misbahul Haq 50 not out


The Christchurch Test was Misbahul Haq’s 50th as Pakistan’s captain and another feather in the cap for the 42 year-old who has now reached unchartered territory for country’s Test leaders.

Misbah started his reign six years ago on the back of the spot-fixing scandal crisis and banning of his predecessor Salman Butt. After a hard fought draw in his debut series as captain — two Tests versus South Africa in the UAE — he led Pakistan to series wins against New Zealand, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh before the historic sweep of the then world number one Test team England in the UAE.

After a lean period following the win against England, Misbah took the team to another run which started with a series win over Australia in the UAE followed by success in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka in the 2014-15 season. The high profile tour of England — earlier this year — was a success for the middle-order batsman who was named the man-of-the-series more for his inspiring leadership than batting. Before squaring the series with England, Pakistan defeated them 2-0 in the UAE while the West Indians also tasted a 2-1 series defeat last month.

Misbah has remained a calming influence on the team and has made the most of his limitations as a batsman making vital contributions from his number five spot in the batting order.

For six years he has kept the team together, his last challenge is to hold the fort in New Zealand and Australia, as exhibited in the Christchurch Test, Pakistan have one final battle and a tough one at that under Misbah, will there be a heroic exit in store or will Misbah fade away? We hope it is indeed heroic since he deserves a rousing send-off.

Internet freedom


There is no end to the limitations placed on the Pakistani people, be it through ease of traditional practice, classist, bureaucratic and preferential systems, or a whole slew of other restrictions if you are a woman in this country. No different is the reality on cyberspace, which is used the world over as a medium to exercise freedom of expression. A report by a Washington DC firm, Freedom House, entitled Freedom on the Net 2016 ranked Pakistan in the bottom 10 countries for Internet freedom, based on obstacles to access, violations of user rights and limits to content. It also categorised Pakistan in the “not free” group of countries for Internet freedom. While only 18 per cent of the population is virtually connected, the expansion of Internet connectivity via 3G and 4G will mean more citizens subject themselves to yet more restrictions placed on them by the Government of Pakistan.

Disconcertingly, Pakistan beats out only a few countries on the ranking, some of which are communist, such as China, and ultra-conservative, such as Saudi Arabia. Ad hoc policies might be to blame; the government likes to exert prowess on media that it perceives as an insult to its institutions. Internet censorship is heavy and nonsensical at times, such as a nearly four-year blanket ban on YouTube for the existence of one video that was found offensive. If found unconstitutional, the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority can proceed to internally blocking certain content. However, a ubiquitous ban is unreasonable, as Internet content offers viewpoints and exposure that can help our naive population to broaden its perspectives, which is not to say they should accept those alternative viewpoints. The Internet is an educational tool and must not be so restrictive, which can lead minds to develop biased world concepts. With the new Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, government surveillance is set to increase with potential violations of user privacy, which is most inopportune in a country that already exercises several forms of oppression towards its people.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 21st, 2016.
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  #993  
Old Tuesday, November 22, 2016
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Default November 22nd, 2016.

Date: Tuesday, November 22nd, 2016.


Farewell General Raheel Sharif


A tweet from the Director General ISPR set the media ablaze but settled a raging debate. The words “COAS kicks off his farewell visits…” in Lt General Asim Saleem Bajwa’s tweet were the first formal confirmation that Chief of the Army Staff General Raheel Sharif was retiring upon completion of his tenure. This was in line with a similar tweet from Lt General Bajwa earlier this year which had said that General Raheel Sharif had no intention of staying in office any longer than his mandated tenure.

It is a reflection of the perennial civil-military tug-of-war in Pakistan that the retirement — or possible extension for that matter — of an army chief becomes one of the most pressing political issues of the time. This is not surprising in a country that has seen numerous army chiefs extend their terms in office either through an extension or via an outright military takeover. Pakistanis are justified in being nervous,more so when the civil-military relationship boils over into thinly-disguised tensions.Such conjecturing was more acute in the case of General Raheel Sharif because of his turbo-charged performance in battling terrorism in Fata, Karachi and other parts of the country. To him went the credit for launching Operation Zarb-e-Azb at a time when the political leadership was dithering and wavering in face of relentless Taliban attacks. Under his command the army went deep into the lair of TTP and cleansed areas. It may yet be premature to proclaim an outright victory against terrorists but it may not be wrong to say that their threat has been diminished significantly.

Perhaps this success was what prompted people to wonder aloud about an extension for the general. With a political crisis brewing as a result of the clash between the government and PTI, many stakeholders had begun to look at the army chief with a mixture of nervousness and expectancy. Posters asking the army chief to stay in office beyond his three years also appeared.

The uncertainty has finally been put to rest as we prepare to bid a competent army chief farewell and welcome his successor. The PM will hopefully utilise his experience to make a wise choice for the COAS. An institutional transfer of command within the army strengthens the institution and sets an example that will hopefully be followed by the political leadership.


Coming full circle


Nothing is forever. Few foresaw the rapid collapse of the Soviet Union, even fewer the Trump presidency. The re-swinging of the compass that determines the relationship between Pakistan and Russia is equally not something that was foretold but so it has transpired. The Cold War adversaries are now aligned in such a way as to credibly address one of the great problems of modern diplomacy — peace in Afghanistan. The proposal is that Russia will host trilateral talks involving itself, Pakistan and China within the next month and is rightly described by an unnamed Pakistani official as ‘a watershed moment.’

None of the various groupings of nations that have cobbled together solution-oriented groups has done anything but ultimately fail, and often ignominiously so. They foundered as much on the failure to be inclusive, particularly of the Taliban in their various iterations, and the new tripartite proposal suffers from the same deficit. It may be that the presence of Pakistan will provide a Taliban conduit as it has in the past, and the Chinese have shown considerable interest in the recent past, hosting a meeting with the Taliban in the last year. Russia at the table considering its past history with Afghanistan is the intriguing addition. There is an obvious rapprochement with Pakistan as signaled by the first joint military exercises in the last month, much to the irritation of India that is also a player within Afghanistan. Russia may be spurred by a deteriorating situation within Afghanistan and a bullish Islamic State who now have a significant in-country presence. Not all Afghans are likely to be delighted by the Russian proposal, and some will actively work to thwart any good that might come from it. An unstable Afghanistan is in the interests of none of the great powers, regional and global. Added to the mix is the uncertainty in terms of future foreign policy direction by the upcoming Trump presidency that will have to come up to speed with remarkable alacrity if it is not to misstep in the Afghan minefield. That said, we wish good fortune to the new proposal.

K-P education reforms


The state of education in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) is in a tussle with itself. In the 2015-16 academic school year, provincial education officials discovered that there was an influx of approximately 34,000 former-private school students at their government institutions. The reason is due to the tenuous K-P Registration and Functioning of Private Education Institutions Ordinance, 2001, which has allowed the cost of private education to rise without a ceiling cap and without defined criteria on teacher qualification. Unable to afford private education and dissatisfied with their quality, parents have opted for public education for their children. The shift towards public education might be a progressive development as the state of government education is evolving, but private institutions need some regulation, particularly in terms of quality standards and considering it is a nascent industry prone to exploitation.

At this point, however, it would be naive to say that the state of government education is improving significantly in K-P. So far, its education department has focused on school infrastructure and teacher training but there are still many reforms to be made. Competition from the private sector should be welcomed but both sectors must work towards a shared primary goal: to churn out astute students well-suited for higher education. Instead, the former is mired in corruption by teachers who draw salaries without fulfilling their duties and the latter in raising profits without justifying costs and delivering quality. Provinces across the country continue to operate ghost schools, though some have been shut down, and have an exploitive private education system. It is incumbent on provincial education departments and respective private school associations to devise better laws for the functioning of private schools to facilitate education, not make it a burden and dissuade parents and students from obtaining it.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 22nd, 2016.
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Old Friday, November 25, 2016
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Default November 23rd, 2016.

Date: Wednesday, November 23rd, 2016.


Dodging the census


A national census every ten years is a primary planning tool in virtually every developed nation as well as a majority of developing states. In a world where demographics are shifting, sometimes rapidly, a census is essential if governments are to respond appropriately to emerging trends — but not in Pakistan. Successive governments have all managed to kick census-taking into the long grass and the incumbent government is no different. The reasons — and there are many — are clear enough. The delimitation of boundaries especially in urban areas where the demographics as well as the ethnic composition have changed dramatically since the last census is perhaps the largest political hot potato. Sindh and Balochistan in particular have seen significant changes, and some of the migrations from rural to urban in Punjab have changed the shape of politics in areas where for generations the demographic was essentially static.

For the timorous politicians of Pakistan — and the affliction crosses party boundaries — the fear is that their vote banks are going to be changed or threatened by boundary changes and a re-imaging of the demographic nationally. As Pakistan develops — and it is developing despite what the naysayers would have us believe — then it is inevitably changing. That reality cannot be denied forever yet it is that denial that this government perpetuates by eternally delaying the census. The all-purpose excuse for this is that there can be no census without the support of the army and the army is just too busy with security commitments and the protection of our borders to release sufficient personnel to support a census-taking.

Whilst it is understood that the support of the military is essential it is not beyond the current planning capacity of both the military and civil powers to organise a census. The exercise is time-limited and the military can go back to their duties elsewhere once it is completed. The government is once again to consult the Council for Common Interest, another foot-dragging exercise, and the census is no more likely to happen in March 2017 than it ever was. Denial of uncomfortable realities has become the hallmark of bad governance.

Good ideas


The IDEAS 2016 four-day defence exhibition has brought chaos to the already appalling traffic problems that Karachi experiences daily, but the other side of the coin is that once again Pakistan is able to showcase an area of production that is vibrant, expanding and profitable. The PM and the outgoing army chief General Raheel Sharif inaugurated the exhibition on the morning of Tuesday 22nd November. The exhibition has drawn delegates from around the world and it is not just promoting local wares. Pakistan has a significant export market in this sector, and the new generation of drones developed locally exemplifies this. It has a 15-hour loiter time and has a wide civilian as well as military application.

From small beginnings the IDEAS event has grown into an arms and non-military hardware exhibition of regional as well as an expanding global importance. There are 216 foreign exhibitors at this years’ event, comprising 90 delegations from 34 countries. They do not come to Pakistan as a favour to the government they come to display and sell their goods. They come with heavyweight members — defence ministers, chiefs of army staffs, secretary level bureaucrats and other senior figures — who are also not here for the good of their health but to network among themselves and exchange ideas and grease the wheels of international trade and diplomacy.

It is a mistake to view such events as merely an arms bazaar. That it undeniably is, but it is also an opportunity for high-level informal diplomacy to be conducted in an atmosphere more relaxed and open than the ‘usual channels.’ It is also an opportunity to market Brand Pakistan in the broadest sense. Pakistan makes millions in foreign-exchange sales of goods that would not sell internationally were they not of a quality to satisfy the buyers and end-users. The IDEAS event should be both benchmark and template and grow year on year. Success stories are rare enough, and we should capitalise on those that come our way — bigger and better next year, please.

Deportations and Pakistan


Almost a quarter of a million people of Pakistan origin have been deported from a range of countries over the last three years. Most of the deportations have been from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, but with significant numbers from Iran, Oman, Greece and the UK. The majority of those from countries in the Arabian Peninsula were there looking for or engaged in, work. Those deported from Iran were described as ‘in transit’ to Greece and reportedly en-route for preference to the UK. The source of the figures is a report by the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) entitled ‘Labour migration from Pakistan: 2015 Status Report and it is a bleak picture. Almost a quarter-million people have made or attempted to make improperly documented journeys out of Pakistan, many, perhaps the majority, seeking work. The trend appears to be upwards and there are suggestions that there has been an increase in trafficking and the smuggling of migrants.

Improperly documented travel and the crossing of borders illegally is a growing problem globally. For Pakistan this feeds through to tightened visa requirements and ever-closer inspection of people travelling from Pakistan elsewhere. For people fleeing Syria the reasons for wanting to leave are clear enough, but less so for those wanting to leave Pakistan beyond a lack of work that pays enough to meet their needs.

Herein lies the story that the deportation figures do not tell. The security situation is improving and there is no all-out war being fought within our borders. A small number of those leaving may claim to be doing so as persecuted members of minorities, but they are few. Most are leaving because they cannot get the jobs they need or the jobs that they can get are paid so poorly as to offer little or no incentive to stay. They are often poor and will go into crippling debt to escape a country where they see no future for themselves. Theirs is the untold tragedy and addressing their need the challenge for this and future governments.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 23rd, 2016.
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Old Friday, November 25, 2016
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Default November 24th, 2016.

Date: Thursday, November 24th, 2016., 2016.

India’s risky misadventure


India, it appears, is desperately trying once again but failing miserably to shoot its way out of a problem of its own making. Therefore, the blatant violation of the Line of Control (LoC) and that of the ceasefire accord of 2003. Thousands of Kashmiris have lost their lives in this almost 70-year long struggle. Any attempts to reconcile failed because India kept refusing to recognise the matter as its problem and resolve it on its own by giving up its wrongful claim over the occupied state. In fact, PM Modi tried to change the demography of the Valley by trying to settle non-Kashmiris and Jammu residents in it. This infuriated the Kashmiri youth who had by now come under the inspiring spell of young Burhanudddin Wani and the ensuing protest which as usual was peaceful in the Intifada turned violent with the cold- blooded killing of Wani and the use of pellet guns by the Indian security forces that blinded by the hundreds. The world reacted with abhorrence to the massive human rights violations in the Valley. But instead of cooling off, India has increased the heat inside the Valley and across the LoC on the pretext of confronting terrorism being allegedly exported by Pakistan. In its desperation it has tried to create a war-like situation by talking of giving up the first N-use option and then sending its submarines to bottle up our ports. It has also sent in a spy drone. Both the efforts were frustrated by Pakistan. India seems to be coming close to having exhausted all its weapons of terror and like in the past would find it impossible to de-escalate the situation without engaging in direct talks with the Kashmiri leadership.

The unprovoked shelling across the Line of Control (LoC) by the Indian troops, almost on daily basis flagrantly violating the 2003 ceasefire agreement has taken a heavy toll of lives, mostly of innocent civilians on the Pakistani side. On Wednesday the Indian shelling targeted a civilian bus and an ambulance adding many more to civilian fatalities. The blatant violation of human rights by the 700,000 strong Indian troops’ trying to quell the uprising in the Indian Held Kashmir that had caught New Delhi by surprise following the brutal killing of youthful Kashmiri leader Burhanuddin Wani had invited world-wide condemnation . It was perhaps to divert the attention of the world from its own criminal acts that the India first blamed Pakistan for the Uri attack and then claimed for the benefit of its people the act of carrying out a surgical strike across the LoC which turned out to be bogus. And now in order to deflect the focus from the fake surgical strike, the Indian government seems to have decided to keep the LoC under continuous fire power regardless of the human cost to the civilians living on the Pakistani side. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had stepped up a drive to isolate Pakistan diplomatically after the Uri army base attack in which 19 Indian soldiers were killed. Interestingly, the Uri attack had occurred days before Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was set to address the United Nations General Assembly regarding Indian human rights violations in held Kashmir. Meanwhile, in a welcome move considering the seriousness of the situation a high-level committee has been formed by the government of Pakistan consisting of senior officials from the ministries of defence, interior and information, the Military Operations Directorate, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and Intelligence Bureau (IB), to formulate a doable and sustainable India-Kashmir policy. Another committee, chaired by the information secretary, has also been formed to prepare fact sheets, counter India’s propaganda campaign and design a media strategy to continuously highlight the Kashmiri freedom struggle. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Information Technology has been asked to prepare a comprehensive strategy to highlight the Jammu and Kashmir dispute via social media.

Street crime rampant


It is rare for street crime to make the headlines wherever it happens in Pakistan, but the robbery caught on camera in Lahore in recent days is the exception and provoked a response from Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif no less. The clip — that has gone viral — records a commonplace robbery at traffic lights. The robbers threatened the occupants of a car, fired a shot into the air, stole gold jewellery from a female passenger and escaped on a motorbike. Robberies such as this are a daily occurrence. A report authored by the Interior Ministry in November 2015 covering the previous five years showed that out of 120,000 reported cases of street crime nationally 93,000 originated in Punjab. It was acknowledged that many thousands of cases go unreported to the police.

The call by the CM to arrest the culprits rings hollow and he is probably aware of that. He has expressed his disappointment that despite investing large sums in the provision of modern equipment and training that there has been no reduction in the incidence of street crime in Lahore. Similar initiatives in other provinces have produced equally negative results.

The police have offered cash rewards in some cases hoping that the citizenry will turn in the robbers — a faint hope indeed. Incentives are no replacement for good policing, and the much-trumpeted Lahore Dolphin Force on their expensive motorcycles seems to have little impact beyond the visual and cosmetic. Street crime is unchecked across the country in cities and towns large and small. Thousands of phones are snatched, ordinary people assaulted and injured and in some cases killed in the commission of these crimes, and the catching of the robbers and their subsequent prosecution rare indeed. Crime such as this has become normative, acceptable even, and the futility of reporting it to the police glaringly obvious. The robbery in Lahore has garnered unusual attention; whether it changes anything is very much an open question. Punjab has invested sizeable amounts to upgrade its police and the Chief Minister wants the force to be seen as the best in the country. Even this low benchmark may now be debatable given the recent spate of street crimes.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 24th, 2016.
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Default November 25th, 2016.

Date: Friday, November 25th, 2016.


A growing anxiety


The situation along the Line of Control and the Working Boundary with India is degrading almost by the hour. The default position of managed instability expanded beyond its ill-defined envelope with the targeting of a civilian bus killing ten, and then the targeting of the first-responder ambulance that had arrived to treat and evacuate the casualties. By convention ambulances and other battlefield medical services and operatives are not targets, a convention that India appears to have placed to one side. The Kashmir dispute is being taken as a licence to kill indiscriminately by India, and civilians and civilian support infrastructure are no longer ‘off limits’.

It is no exaggeration to say that the current level of hostilities is the most dangerous escalation since the 2003 ceasefire agreement between India and Pakistan. Since 2003 there have been innumerable violations of the ceasefire, many of them relatively minor in purely military terms but in recent weeks both the frequency and severity of the violations have racked up. The numbers of dead on both sides, civil and military, is rising and perhaps the most concerning aspect is that there is no operant handbrake. There is no agency or process or set of protocols that appear able or indeed willing to stop or at least bring a pause to what is now dangerously close to outright warfare.



The mantra is always ‘ …but neither side wants nor can afford a war’. Any war would be disastrous for both sides and not only at the combatant level but in terms of their international relations — and here we encounter the silence of the international community. It is possible that India is seeking to provoke Pakistan into an overreaction, a misstep militarily and there does not appear to be any voice outside the two adversaries that is audible or of sufficient heft to bring matters to a halt or at least an agreement to press the ‘pause’ button.

The international community, or at least those parts of it that might have an interest in the Indo-Pak disputes, is paralysed in the oncoming headlights of the impending Trump Presidency. Whatever the brutalities being perpetrated in Indian-held Kashmir they are rendered invisible or at the least irrelevant in a world preoccupied with what may in the end amount to a reshaping of the global political order. No state is about to launch a diplomatic lifeboat in the direction of India and Pakistan. Both are more exposed than they have been in decades and both are heavily reliant on the competences or otherwise of their statesmen, politicians and bureaucrats.

Now is the time when our diplomatic muscle requires flexing because matters cannot be allowed to drift any longer. The meeting between the Prime Minister and concerned parties on Thursday 24th was little more than due process, and took nothing forwards. It is not enough to maintain the status quo because events are moving faster than is the political ability to react.

Now is the time for the civil and military leadership to be both ringing the alarm bells as well as working the backchannels internationally in those capitals that need their focus shifting in this direction. India needs to have demonstrated for it in the clearest possible terms that enough is enough — and Pakistan needs to attend to its Foreign Ministry, and specifically the prolonged and corrosive absence of a formally appointed Foreign Minister that has the muscle and competencies as well as the profile to make them heard and understood on the world stage.

The current crisis demands some urgent out-of-the-box thinking which may not be comfortable politically — but the crisis is owned by all of us and not just those in elected seats of power. There is the expectation that the military will deliver as it always has but this needs more than artillery — it requires statesmanship if it is to be fixed and a political pragmatism that rarely makes it out of the box.


Fatter cats


Politicians the world over that are elected to paid positions have their incomes regularly scrutinised and so it is in Pakistan. Most recently a meeting of the cabinet presided over by the Prime Minister gave scrutiny to the salaries of federal lawmakers, raised their eyebrows, and promptly increased them by in most instances over 100 per cent. Eyebrows have likewise been raised outside the rarefied halls of governance and questions posed as to the timing of this decision coming as it does amid a range of challenges and threats that beset the government on all sides.

To be scrupulously fair to the elected members their salaries had, as they are ever-quick to point out, fallen behind market values. The basic pay (unfattened by numerous allowances and credits) of MNAs and Senators was Rs44,630 which we admit is on the low side. It is now bumped up to a very healthy Rs150,000 and that of a federal minister from Rs114,892 to Rs200,000 — which seems to us to be fair remuneration when all the bells and whistles are factored in.

To be equally scrupulously fair the political classes of Pakistan rarely enter their vocation from a position of poverty, indeed many of them are among the richest in the land never mind what their annual statements of wealth (or relative poverty) to the Election Commission of Pakistan may say. One might be forgiven for wondering if the expressions of fiscal pain attached to the discharge of their public duties might be more than a little feigned.

There is of course not a shred of evidence to support the scurrilous assertions being bruited about in certain quarters that the government was seeking to curry favour with the elected worthies, and moreover doing so at what amounts to bargain basement prices when one aggregates the cost of the annual increases — considerably less than, say, building a new hospital anywhere in Balochistan. But no matter, the issue is said to have been pending for a decade and is for now resolved doubtless to the satisfaction of all concerned. Would that the same expediency could have been brought to bear on other pressing matters.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 25th, 2016.
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Date: Saturday, November 26th, 2016.


A landmark law


In a rare display of distilled common-sense the Sindh Assembly has passed unanimously the Forced Conversion Law on Thursday 24th November. The Bill started life as a private enterprise and was originally tabled last year by Pakisan Muslim League — Functional and it was subsequently referred to the standing committee for minority and human rights and then returned to the assembly. Given the generally tardy progress anything relating to human rights and the rights of minorities makes it was taken up with commendable speed. Although not on the agenda last Thursday the Bill’s proposer Nand Kumar after consultation with the Speaker and the PPP saw his proposal put to the assembly where it was passed unanimously.

The passing of this legislation is much to be welcomed as it gives leverage to those seeking to curb an odious and increasing practice — forced conversion from one of the minority faiths to Islam. That it received immediate cross-party approval is equally commendable and one of the finer examples of how a democratic assembly can work for the common good and lay aside traditional party-political divisions.

Those that are the subject of forced conversion are primarily young girls, generally from poor backgrounds with little by way of resources or clout to resist those that prey on them. The new law will give an opportunity for redress, but as ever there will be a gap between the passing of the legislation and the first prosecutions under its provisions. The police in particular are going to be key players in terms of whether this new law remains a paper exercise or have legislative teeth. Forced conversion now has to be criminalised, and the victims given the protection they are going to need, and there are clauses within that define how that protection is to be offered.

For many conservatively-minded people forced conversion is normative and culturally acceptable. They will resist the change and seek to frustrate the new law. That must not be allowed to happen. Human rights generally and the rights of women and minorities just took a step forward in Sindh, let us now see the new law implemented in letter and spirit.

Women that win


Recent years have seen a slew of Pakistani women win an array of international awards from the Nobel Peace Prize to multiple Academy Awards and now the latest — Gulalai Ismail and Saba Ismail have been awarded the prestigious Chirac Prize in Paris. Their award was for ‘conflict prevention’ and is recognition of their work with the NGO they co-founded ‘Aware Girls’ that few will have heard of. They add their names to an impressive honour roll — Malala Yousafzai, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Nighat Dad have all been honoured multiple times internationally but rarely in their own country, and Malala Yousafzai is at such risk of her life in Pakistan that making a visit home is unthinkable.

All of these women are exceptional in some way, and in several instances are something of a thorn in the side of the conservative establishment. They challenge prevailing norms and push back repressive or intrusive legislation. The two latest recipients of the Chirac award have worked since 2002 seeking to strengthen the leadership skills of the younger generation and particularly women and girls. They develop the skills in others that allow them to become change agents, building their capacity as peacemakers and empowering women in communities where women empowerment has never been on the agenda of patriarchal cultures.

Pakistan is to say the least ambivalent about these prize-winning women. For Obaid-Chinoy there is the accusation that she only highlights what is the worst of Pakistan, for Malala that she is a tool of foreign agencies, for Dad that she is a troublemaker. Today Gulalai and Saba join the company of women that make a difference, that have fought and will continue to fight against powerful and malign forces — and Pakistan needs more of them. Moreover, they need to be recognised and honoured within as they are without if the dead weight of patriarchy is to be eroded. Fight the good fight Gulalai and Saba, and we are with you.

PFA in action


In Karachi in January 2015, a young girl consumed a burger that resulted in her most unfortunate demise. In this backdrop of other similar stories, it is enlightening to read, albeit coming out of a different province, that the Punjab Food Authority (PFA) is back in action against the sale of tainted food products after a hiatus. The mass profiteering taking place across the country through the consumption of subpar and often toxic foods is dishonest and highly unethical. Patrons should be promised basic hygiene and quality at the very least if they are paying bills as high as 200 per cent to 300 per cent the restaurants’ actual food costs. Ergo, the crackdown in Punjab is appreciated.

After the leniency period for restaurants to complete a self-check and ensure hygiene, the PFA should have no mercy; it should enforce food laws bearing the potential grim consequences, such as the one cited above, in mind. A meticulously outlined process for food health and safety checks should be published detailing rules and consequences for food expiration labels, kitchen and dining hall hygiene, waste disposal, food recycling and waste, waiter and chef appearance including clean clothes, aprons, hairnets and gloves, along with protocols for fumigation. Restaurants in developed countries, mentioned here because they provide advanced frameworks to aspire to, even discard ingredients hourly, such as milk if in a coffee shop — something for our dessert and dairy shops to consider. For existing restaurants, registrations should be suspended until proper food health and safety practices are in place. For new restaurants, a probational registration could be offered after passing an initial hygiene check. After a probationary period, a surprise visit should occur to determine whether the restaurant maintains hygiene standards upon which a permanent registration can be granted with the condition that annual or biannual checks will be instated. This is a crucial development in consumer health and safety in Pakistan and the spirit must be kept alive, along with expanding such control in other provinces.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 26th, 2016.
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Date: Monday, November 28th, 2016.


Heating the waters


It is not difficult to find analysts and commentators that have opined over several years that the next conflict in the subcontinent is going to be about water and not territory. The Kashmir dispute between India and Pakistan has triggered outright warfare in the past and is currently at the boil, and has been since the killing of a young Kashmiri activist last summer — but it is water that is likely to prove to be the more volatile element in the long run.

Since coming to power in May 2014 Mr Modi has done next to nothing to advance the peace process between India and Pakistan and has arguably taken the process several steps backwards rather than forwards. He does this against a backdrop of studied indifference on the part of the global community which holds its nose and points in the sub-continental direction and says ‘Sort it out for yourselves’ — a position it may be unable to sustain in the face of the latest turn of the pages in the Modi playbook. Exchanges of fire along the Line of Control (LoC) are one thing, but threatening the Indus Water Treaty (IWT) quite another.

The IWT has long been considered one of the success stories of modern diplomacy. It was mediated by the World Bank in 1960 and has proved remarkably robust, surviving the wars of 1965, 1971 and 1999 virtually intact. But the IWT was ratified in the days before global warming was understood — or even recognised — and the changes in climate globally began to affect an unsuspecting world. There have been rumblings that the IWT may be abrogated from the Indian side in the last two years, and the threat for Pakistan is very real indeed as it is ‘downstream’ of virtually all of the river sources of which India has potentially the control or interruption of the flow.

The loose-lipped and loquacious Mr Modi is well aware of all this, and his statement on Friday 25th that ‘water that belongs to India cannot be allowed to flow into Pakistan’ does nothing to lower tensions, indeed the reverse. The IWT covers six rivers — the Beas, Ravi, Sutlej, Indus, Chenab and Jhelum — and clearly and unequivocally states that the waters of all are to be shared equitably between the two countries. According to Mr Modi who is doubtless eyeing his Punjab farmers vote bank it is his bounden duty to see that they get every drop of water that is due to them. That it is — but not at the expense of everybody else that is downstream of the Modi rhetoric, and it is here that the international community may finally be jerked from their slumbers.

The Adviser to the Prime Minister on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz is right to sound the alarm. If India decides to violate the IWT and interrupt the flow to Pakistan it will not only be a treaty breach, but has the potential to create a regional precedent for the circumventing or abrogation of long-standing international law. The ramifications of such a hostile move are many and obvious. Were China to decide to suspend the flow of the waters of the Brahmaputra for instance — which it is technically capable of doing — the effects would be far reaching indeed, and threaten Chinese relations with India and Bangladesh. This problem — water — is not going to go away and is only going to get worse. The control of water across the subcontinent is a vital factor in regional peace and stability and the suspension by India of the Indus Water Commission talks on the grounds that Pakistan is a state-sponsor of terrorism is an ominous sign.

Earlier in November the Indian government decided that it would use more water from the rivers flowing through the Indus basin, but within the confines of the IWT. Now Mr Modi has turned up the heat. This is one pot that should not be allowed to boil over.

Power tariff reduction


Life in Karachi rarely offers its residents breaks in the daily hustle and bustle. Similar is the situation with the National Electric Power Regulatory Authority’s (Nepra) recently announced power tariff reduction by Rs2.60 per unit that has been offered to all consumers except those who purchase their electricity from K-Electric — meaning residents of Karachi as well as households using less than 300 units per month, as per Nepra’s stipulations. The cost adjustment was made for the month of October 2016 because distribution companies charged consumers an excessive amount above the actual cost of fuel. This is an honourable decision by Nepra and too bad that Karachiites will miss out on the relief.

In all fairness, the charge of Rs7.33 from an actual Rs4.74 cost is a significant increase by 55 per cent, so the Central Power Purchasing Agency was right in filing the petition with Nepra. Nepra seems to be working aptly, aiming to keep costs down, or at least reasonable, for consumers, as they continue to face rising costs in various sectors. Exorbitant costs of electricity have long forced many to forego health and comfort, particularly in the summer months when the use of air conditioning becomes necessary with high threat levels of deadly heat exhaustion, for example. Nepra also rejected a request to increase the tariff for Pakistan’s first private high-voltage direct current transmission line project, the $1.57 billion 878-kilometre long Matiari-Lahore transmission line, much to the federal government’s dismay, as well as to the disapproval of the Chinese company working on the project, as part of a priority venture under the CPEC umbrella. However, the country’s heavy reliance on coal-based fuel is not a sustainable model. Considering that Pakistan continues to face annual electricity shortfalls, energies must be focused towards research and development on sustainable fuel sources, also taking into consideration the impending threat of climate change. Although changes are being introduced in the power supply landscape of Pakistan, with private companies and Chinese companies entering the arena, the tiffs between the regulator and the government will need to be patched up for the country to prosper.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 28th, 2016.
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Date: Tuesday, November 29th, 2016.

Controlling crime in Karachi


As has been made clear in the bloodiest possible way Karachi remains a dangerous and deadly place to live and work — particularly if one works in the forces of law-and-order or is a member of a minority community. A spate of shootings has left a senior police officer and a member of the Ahmadiyya community dead and a Head Constable of the traffic police seriously injured. There is speculation that the motives are sectarian (probable) or retaliation against the police for doing their jobs (at the very least possible.) The shootings followed a familiar pattern — men on motorcycles who were clearly intelligence led as they knew where their victims were and their movements rode up, did their bloody work and rode off. The likelihood of their being found or prosecuted is remote. Much has been made of the reduction in crimes of this sort in Karachi and that is certainly true, but there is obviously more to do if violent crime is to be pegged back as well as reducing the ever-rising but little-reported street crime of a lesser nature.

With a new army chief to come into post within days now is the time for the PPP government and particularly the apex committee that is tasked to oversee the implementation of the National Action Plan (NAP) to re-lens the Karachi Operation. Gains have been made, but sustaining them is now the challenge, as well as having the Rangers push the envelope of engagement yet further. There has been criticism of the Rangers in the past that they have been unduly heavy-handed and that is possible. The other side of the coin is that you do not fight what is to all intents and purposes a low-intensity urban war with one hand tied behind your back.

Subjectively Karachi feels safer than it was a year ago. How much safer is an open question, because objectively it is just a little safer going by the headline statistics — but a long way from being truly safe. A Karachi clean-up was never going to be pretty, but failing to do so is a still-uglier prospect. Get to it.

Fidel Castro 1926-2016


Apicture has emerged since the death of Fidel Castro was announced in terms of responses to it that speaks of a man who was as much a divider as he was a unifier and revolutionary. Castro was perhaps the last of the Cold War warriors and at the time of his death the world’s longest-serving head of state (he remained titular head though his brother Raul had taken over the running of the country.)

There was grief on the streets of Havana and rejoicing on the streets of Miami, Florida, by Cubans that had fled or opposed his regime. President Obama issued a carefully crafted statement that was aimed at the preservation of the rapprochement between Cuba and America. President-elect Trump issued a four-word Tweet — ‘Fidel Castro is dead.’ European responses ranged between the anodyne and tepid to the cautiously diplomatic. He was admired for his stance against America by many and criticised for his record on human rights (it was appalling) and the fact that he held Cuba back developmentally in defence, said he, of revolutionary ideals. His funeral is to be on Saturday 3rd December and it will be interesting to see who from the pantheon of world leaders decides to attend.

The Castro legacy is going to be picked over by historians for decades but it is the aftermath, the ‘what now’, that is of immediate interest. There is not going to be any political change in Cuba. It is a Communist one-party state and will remain so. It is also opening up to the world of trade, and the Trump presidency is open for business in under two months and if there is one thing Mr Trump is it is a businessman. He will also be mindful of the Cuban voters that were instrumental in him winning Florida; so as is proving to be the case with so much of Mr Trump reality and rhetoric may part company. Castro was a man of his time, and vital in his day. That day is long past and it is now for Cuba to chart a path into the 21st century.

The debt balloon


The report that Pakistan has taken on an additional $3 billion in foreign loans in the last four months, and that those loans are being used to finance budget commitments as well as bolster foreign currency reserves is worrying. The inflow of foreign economic assistance between July and October 2016 was $2.95 billion, of which $2.2 billion or 75 per cent of the toal loan was for what are described as ‘non-productive purposes.’ In laypersons terms that means that the government is not borrowing to build or develop planned and existing projects but to support existing debt, and the commitments made in successive budgets as well as fatten the forex reserves that have dropped of late. Loans to support projects in the same period amounted to a paltry $750 million.

The point to draw from the above is that foreign loans are only truly beneficial when they are used to build assets because assets — projects — eventually (in theory) turn a profit once the loans used to capitalise them are paid off. The argument is being made that the shift from project loans to programme is leading to a collapse or at least degradation of infrastructure as insufficient funding is available to either upgrade or develop new-build. This is not the picture that the government would wish to have the nation believe as it rolls out ever more ambitious infrastructure projects across the country.

The trouble with debt is that it has to be paid. The economic argument runs that so long as the rate of return on borrowing is 1 percent or higher then foreign debt presents no management problem. As we now know that does not appear to be the case as most of the new foreign debt is holding up the budget. With forex reserves now below $19 billion — reduced by a drop in remittances and foreign exports as well as those irritating repayments that have to be made — there is a developing sense that the government is not managing the money as well as the ever-optimistic finance minister tells us it is. Balloons have a tendency to burst. Careful where you put those pins, Mr Dar.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 29th, 2016.
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Date : Wednesday, November 30th, 2016.


Passing the Baton


Pakistan has witnessed what may be a seminal event in its youthful history as a nation. The Change of Command ceremony for the army chief of staff occurred on Tuesday morning at the GHQ in Rawalpindi. The outgoing General Raheel Sharif had completed his tenure and General Qamar Javed Bajwa, the 16th army chief, has assumed command of the Pakistan army, one of the largest and most battle-hardened fighting forces in the world. Why this might be regarded as seminal is because it was routine, a part of a process, and took place with due protocol and the sense of dignity that the occasion demands.

General Bajwa was the Prime Ministers selection for the job and he has a full agenda as was acknowledged in the address by General Sharif that accompanied the handover. Active issues are the support and protection of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor that is gaining relevance and importance almost by the day, taking the heat out of the situation along the Line of Control, corruption and crime generally and the linked items of terrorism and the implementation of the National Action Plan that is in need of revivifying and which would benefit from a fresh and emphatic restatement.

All of the above are ‘carry-overs’ and in that sense General Bajwa is a ‘continuity COAS’ but as with his predecessors once he has taken office he will be putting his own stamp on how the army and he as its leader moves forward. His appointment is good for the army in that it allows movement at the top of the command structure that a three-year cycle serves well. For the civilians the complex and not always easy relationship with the military may — may — have just got a little easier. General Sharif did not seek and was not offered an extension of tenure, an indication of the green shoots of maturity in the political cadre perhaps that is already eyeing the 2018 elections. The most encouraging news for all sides is that the new COAS came into post within the context of a routine set of protocols, and the very ordinariness of the process renders it seminal.

The PTCL downsize


Pakistan has a slew of bloated and inefficient state entities that are either proposed as possible privatisation targets or ‘in process’ towards privatisation. One entity that has passed into the private sector is Pakistan Telecommunication Company Limited (PTCL) and it is reported that it is to offer half its workforce voluntary separation — redundancy by any other name. Up to 9,000 of its workforce of around 18,000 are being offered a Voluntary Separation Scheme (VSS) in a bid to bring PTCL into competitive line with other telecoms players in the market. This is the fourth time that PTCL has sought to cut its workforce since 2008 when a similar offer was made to 35,000 employees — and around 30,000 took the golden(ish) handshake — a clear indication if it were needed of just how overmanned the organisation was. In 2006 when the government sold off its 26 percent stake to Etisalat there were 64,000 employees.

The reason for the latest downsize is clear enough — the digital world has overtaken the analogue world that PTCL was set up to operate in. The fixed landline business that used to be its mainstay has gone into rapid decline with the advance of the mobile phone and other smart products. The older PTCL workforce are not educated or trained in the new technologies and the generation below them is, making sense for the company to recruit people that are familiar with today’s fast moving communications industry. The other factor is the cripplingly high cost of human resources. Around 35 percent of PTCL revenues are soaked up by the wages bill compared to a ratio of 12-15 percent in other telcos — unsustainable in a crowded market.

The business is currently making a profit, earning Rs8.8 billion in 2015 that was 69 percent higher than the previous year. A leaner more efficient workforce is going to allow that profit to grow, but is not going to be cheap in the short term. The model being deployed in PTCL could equally well be applied to Pakistan Steel or the national carrier PIA which is long sclerotic. A little political grit could go a long way.

Cyber labs


Cybersecurity is an underdeveloped area in Pakistan. Anti-state actors have been using the World Wide Web for years to communicate ominous plans to threaten innocent lives. Our government and talent is finally working to secure the Internet space used by citizens. This was due for some time and now, as connectivity is enhanced in rural and remote areas, the threat to cybersecurity has become greater. This is supported by statistics on the increase in malware by 36 per cent in 2015 compared with 2014, according to the Internet Security Threat Report by Symantec. The corporation also detected a 125 per cent increase in 2015 in zero-day vulnerabilities, which are ‘holes’ in software that hackers can exploit to affect networks, data and programmes. The Lahore Garrison University (LGU) and government and military entities have awoken to these threats. The LGU’s Digital Forensic Research and Service Centre comes as a sign of reassurance that the threat to cybersecurity is being acknowledged.

Safeguarding public areas, including the virtual ones, is a government responsibility, but we know the call to action stems from worry about outsiders seeking to weaken Pakistan’s stealth and damage its sanctity. A lower priority is the safety to citizens. Nonetheless, the government’s focus towards developing and providing cyber protection is critical. More universities should be encouraged to establish research and development centres. The digital lab ventures at LGU and other universities in the future should be afforded support and network protection. Recently, a server at a public university in Michigan, USA was hacked, leaking sensitive student data. While Pakistan continues to catch up on the technological front, it needs a strong policy on Internet usage and cybersecurity with recent cybercrime laws enforced — though being cautious not to impinge on citizens’ rights. Especially in this time of transition of powers, be they military or government, the country cannot waver when anti-state actors are at play everywhere.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 30th, 2016.
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