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  #961  
Old Monday, September 12, 2016
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Default September 12th, 2016

Date: Monday, September 12th, 2016


Another loan for the energy sector


Pakistan recently requested the Asian Development Bank (ADB) to double its loan for energy sector reforms, taking the amount from $400 million to $800 million. Finance Minister Ishaq Dar made the request to the ADB country director and it was agreed that instead of a $200-million tranche coming in 2017 and 2018, the size would be doubled to $400 million each. The additional debt comes on the back of figures released by the State Bank of Pakistan that stated the country’s total external debt standing at a whopping $73 billion with GDP growth nowhere near to withstand the increase. It also highlights growing dependency of economic managers on taking loans to implement reforms, in which slow progress, ironically, makes the entire exercise seem like a waste.



Of course, like every loan, it comes with conditions. Pakistan has committed to reduce subsidies, fast-track privatisation and run the power sector on a commercial basis. Barring reducing subsidies — aided by the fall in international prices of crude oil — the country has failed to reform the power sector. Mr Dar boasts of having increased tax revenue by over 50 per cent in the last three years. He should also look at the increase in domestic, as well as external, debt during the period. Someone needs to question as to what has the country actually achieved in the name of power sector reforms in the last three years when it has saved on subsidies, cost of power generation, oil import bill, increasing tax rates and revenue, withholding refunds, inflating collection and getting billions from the IMF, the World Bank and the ADB. The answer is clear; very little. Privatisation hit a snag because power distribution companies didn’t allow for it. Protests happened on a grand scale and the government stepped back. LNG import may have started but reforms within the sector have been lacking. Healthcare and education remain on the back seat even as debt for future generations rises. Tax rates continue to rise and the centre’s interference in provincial tax matters continues to increase. Mr Dar may have said the country doesn’t need the IMF, but dependence on international lenders continues to exist — more so than before.

Afghan transit trade


For centuries, Afghanistan has sat at a crossroads. One of the landlocked Central Asian states, it has always been reliant on agreements for transit trade with its neighbours. Transit generates revenue for a country that has few goods of its own to export, and those that it does have are with a short shelf-life, mostly soft fruits. Into this precarious economic mix comes modern geopolitics, and neighbourly relations with India — a state that is a close trading partner for Afghanistan — and Pakistan with which relations are at a nadir. The latest development in an escalating disharmony between Pakistan and Afghanistan is that Kabul has threatened to close the transit routes for Pakistani exports to Central Asia if it continues to disallow Afghan traders to use the Wagah border in Lahore to conduct trade with India.

This has the potential to be a lose-lose for all concerned. Pakistan cannot afford to lose trading routes any more than Afghanistan. Pakistan may be a poor country but Afghanistan is impoverished and wracked by war. Much of the tension derives from new border arrangements made by Pakistan, which is now demanding that all Afghans coming in via the Torkham crossing must have a passport with a valid visa — a reversal of historic custom and practice that allows free and undocumented transit for Afghan citizens. Neither side has anything to gain by impeding the trade of the other, and the somewhat threatening tone of a statement by Afghan President Ghani has done nothing to ease tensions, indeed the reverse. Both sides need to step back and take the diplomatic equivalent of a deep breath before matters deteriorate any further. Suspicions that the transit trade may be a cover for terrorist arms and activity are not unfounded; they are real and on occasion proven. If the trust deficit could be seen as an opportunity rather than a threat, then there is a chance for the intelligence and security services of both sides to address what each acknowledge as an ongoing difficulty. A problem shared is a problem halved, and allowing safe transit is a moneymaker for all concerned.

Stagnation


Innovation, the ability to create new things, is not anyone’s birthright. One’s social status, nationality, the level of education and financial success are not linked with one’s ability to have ideas. But actually bringing them to fruition requires that they are generated in an idea-friendly environment. At a national level, an idea-friendly environment is one in which governments, through their budgetary allocations and policies, encourage individuals to take the risk of becoming researchers, entrepreneurs and inventors. This is dependent on education that focuses on fostering curiosity and scientific rigour, on infrastructure that facilitates learning and an economy that helps new business ideas to grow. Unfortunately in Pakistan, spending on research and development or education has never been a priority. Our output of university graduates, research papers, inventions and entrepreneurial start-ups is also low. There certainly are examples of individuals who have come up with brilliant ideas that are highlighted locally and internationally. However, such people succeed despite the system rather than because of it.

This is all reflected in stark terms in the Global Innovation Index report 2016 in which Pakistan is ranked 119th out of 128 countries. For a country which spends less than two per cent of its GDP on development, this is an expected result. This ranking reflects our inability to promote ideas, which has resulted in a society that relies on blind obedience and apathy to innovation. Not having been allowed room to breathe, creativity has fled to other countries where Pakistani scientists, educators, innovators and artists flourish unfettered. We must understand the tragedy of consistently losing out on this talent’s contributions. Our society has sunk into stagnation, which discourages newness everywhere, from classrooms to the halls of parliament. We must change or accept the fate of all those who refuse to change — being left behind and forgotten.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 12th, 2016.
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Old Wednesday, September 14, 2016
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Default September 13th, 2016

Date: Tuesday, September 13th, 2016


Health sector reforms compromised


Pakistan lacks in providing access to quality healthcare and education to a huge chunk of its population and the severity of the situation increases as one delves deeper into rural areas. In such a situation, reforms and efforts to provide healthcare in rural areas becomes a welcome move. However, when one hears that the World Bank-funded health reforms project in the ruling party’s stronghold, Punjab, will see a cut in its loan portfolio, eyebrows are raised in surprise and disgust as the major reason for the reduction in the amount of the loan is the slow pace of implementation of the reforms by the Punjab government. When it comes to providing basic needs to the citizenry every penny should count towards a meaningful end.



That is not the case here as showcased by the government’s skewed priorities. The World Bank termed work on the healthcare reforms project “moderately satisfactory” and attributed frequent administrative changes and slow progress as the reason behind its intended move to cut the loan by $20 million. The amount may just be a little over 15 per cent of the overall portfolio of the project, but when a country — that has already fared poorly in health sector reforms — faces a cut in finances, the most neglected areas suffer the most. Ironically, these are the areas that are most in need of reforms. But development that is politically-driven has ensured that its effects do not reach all areas. The 18 districts that are set to be affected by the loan reduction are already in severe need of quality health services. One can’t help but wonder the point of such programmes when, despite having the finances, the country has been unable to satisfy its citizenry. The argument that the government won’t know what to do with the money even if it had it holds all too well here. Ironically, this is the argument tax evaders use to justify their unwillingness to pay their due share of taxes. Pakistan has long suffered due to incompetent and corrupt officials. While debt keeps piling on, meaningful progress on most fronts remains missing. One can only hope that healthcare and education are prioritised, but it seems like the government is only focusing on energy projects and that too, for a few select areas.

Syria ceasefire


Two principal players in the Syrian war theatre have at long last cut a temporary ceasefire deal. The agreement between the US and Russia was announced by John Kerry, the US secretary of state, and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov after gruelling talks in Geneva. While this deal, which stipulates pause in fighting from Monday night so as to allow humanitarian aid to flow, suddenly creates a sense that perhaps cessation of hostilities may just be possible, such euphoric assessment will be highly misplaced. Even the two protagonists sponsoring this latest truce were cautious in describing the accord, going only so far as to say that it was a possible “turning point” after over five years of a brutal war that has killed more than 400,000 and driven millions from their homes, touching off a humanitarian crisis of spectacular proportions. Previous attempts by world powers to broker peace in Syria have been marred by wrangling false starts and eventual failure.

But this latest agreement is significant in one aspect. It involves two key players whose goals hitherto in their separate bombing campaigns have been at cross-purposes, with Russia — in tandem with Iran — doing every bit to prop up the Assad regime and the US aiding militias to pull the rug from under the discredited leader. How this new alignment will play itself out, only time will tell. But while a permanent end to war at this stage is a distinct impossibility, a temporary halt will at least put much-needed balm on the tortured souls of Syrians. Under the seven-day truce, the Syrian army will be required to relax its hold on Aleppo allowing humanitarian aid to be delivered while rebels would stop fighting around government areas. If the ceasefire holds, the Russian and US military would start planning joint air operations against extremist groups, including IS and al-Nusra Front. If everything goes according to script, it could eventually lead to start of negotiations among all stakeholders. But a lot will need to go right for this to happen.

Fight against polio


Long before Pakistan became the centre of world attention due to the war on terrorism, it was known as one of the few places left on earth where polio was still a prevalent disease. In recent years, the fight against polio has seen major obstacles in the form of militancy and violence directed against polio vaccinators. Attitudes of many sections of the population have also hindered anti-polio campaigns with many being against the administering of polio drops to their children based on a medieval, regressive mindset. Unfortunately for us, the fight against polio became mixed up with the fight against terrorism when it was used as a front by the CIA to carry out the search for Osama bin Laden. Since then, health workers who have been doing house to house rounds to vaccinate children have become easy targets for extremist elements. Most recently, Dr Zakaullah Khan, a senior member of the anti-polio drive in Peshawar, was shot and killed on September 11 near his home and the militant group Jamatul Ahrar has claimed responsibility for his death.

Dr Zakaullah’s death is a tragedy for all those health workers across the country who continue to carry out inoculations despite the continued threats that they must face. It is also a tragedy for the rest of Pakistan as each one of these attacks slows down the efforts to eradicate polio. Our children remain at risk for contracting a crippling disease because it has become the face of a different war. This attack also shows that militant activity in Pakistan is very much alive and rears its ugly head from time to time despite the efforts to fight it with there being an upsurge in terror attacks in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. The efforts of all those who continue to fight the good fight against the twin evils of polio and terrorism must be applauded. It is also hoped that their sacrifices will yield results soon and will not be forgotten.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 13th, 2016.
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  #963  
Old Saturday, September 17, 2016
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Default September 16th, 2016

Date: Friday, September 16th, 2016

Free trade agreement wins Iran’s support


Pakistan and Iran have taken a step towards streamlining commerce-rated matters between the two countries, after the latter gave its input to the initial draft of the free trade agreement (FTA). Pakistan shared its version of the draft after Iran’s president expressed the desire for free trade between the two countries during his visit to Islamabad in March this year. Both countries also agreed to move on from the current preferential trade agreement in place to increase the volume of goods. Talks are also under way to establish formal banking channels, which has proven a major hindrance to increasing the volume of bilateral trade.

After most sanctions on Iran were lifted in January this year, a development that came after the country agreed to roll back the scope of its nuclear programme, Pakistan had announced its intention to swiftly and decisively move towards arranging a formal trade agreement with the oil-rich Islamic republic. Talks of formalising trade-related matters began as soon as the announcements came through and were seen as welcoming moves for Pakistan where falling exports and a widening trade deficit had worried economic managers. One would have hoped that globalisation and interconnectedness among world economies would lead to greater sharing of goods and a competitive business environment, but Pakistan — despite being strategically located — has generally been unable to take advantage. The FTA with China is heavily tilted in favour of the foreign country, but this has generally been the case with most trading partners. Improper negotiations and a general haste to sign agreements have meant that Pakistan has remained behind. Additionally, a higher cost of production and uncompetitive goods have left the country prioritise one problem over another. The energy crisis has shaved off precious points of GDP growth and has left exporters tackling challenges on multiple fronts. One would hope that Pakistan would move on from just exporting raw material and sell value-added material to Iran, where years of sanctions have crippled the economy. Times are changing and stress needs to be laid on ecommerce as well as value addition. Iran may very well be the regional market Pakistan so desperately needs given tension with other neighbours seems to be a never-ending phenomenon.

Low grade petrol in Pakistan


At a meeting of the Economic Coordination Committee held recently, Petroleum Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi made a startling statement about the quality of fuel being used in the country. Apparently, the fuel being imported in Pakistan and also being produced by oil refineries is of the lowest grade. This causes vehicles to experience a phenomenon called ‘knocking’ and perform much less efficiently than they would do with a higher quality fuel blend. This quality of octane fuel is only being used in one other country in the world: Somalia. Globally, however, fuel production and import requirements with regard to quality have soared since most modern vehicles require higher grade petrol to run to their full potential. The minister went on to lay out various options to induce local refineries to upgrade their production while also suggesting that Pakistan should halt the import of lower grade petroleum in the future.

If the minister’s words are heeded and the public is provided better quality petrol in the coming months and years, this will be good news for all those whose vehicles have been suffering unnecessary wear and tear due to what can only be termed oversight and lack of planning. The upgrades in car engines and subsequently changing requirements for fuel have been evident to end users, manufacturing companies and governments around the world. If we have purposefully ignored these changes and as a result have caused unnecessary costs, and perhaps excessive emissions due to the use of lower grade fuel then the burden of responsibility lies with the bodies charged with fulfilling the energy requirements of this country. Despite various setbacks the Pakistani economy continues to grow and with it the purchase of vehicles and demand for fuel. The government’s inability to cope with this demand does not bode well for the future either. While the rest of the world is considering moving beyond petrol given its limited supply, Pakistanis are still stuck using an outmoded version of a fuel that will in a few decades be on its way out.


Technological grandstanding


Our government is often blamed for being obtuse with regard to technology. It is a reputation merited by measures such as the banning of Youtube for several years and the recently introduced cybercrime bill that has left civil society activists seething over its efforts to police internet usage. Perhaps in a bid to reverse this perception of being hostile to technology or maybe to build up goodwill for future elections, the government has recently announced that it plans to enter the 5G technology market soon. The statement made by Minister for Planning, Development and Reforms Ahsan Iqbal came as a surprise, both to technology experts in the country and ordinary users who can barely get connectivity for 3G and 4G at present. Also, several parts of the country do not have access to these services as they are mostly diffused around large cities.

The most surprising part of this revelation, however, is the fact that 5G services are at present unavailable even in the most technologically advanced countries. China, Japan and South Korea, for example, have set the year 2020 as the deadline for the introduction of these services and even this distant goal has been termed being ambitious. It’s hard not to wonder at this point whether anyone in the government actually comprehends the term ‘5G’ or if it is simply a buzzword which caught the eye and was put to use to generate some positive publicity. The most important question remains as to what purpose this kind of technology would serve in a country where cyber freedoms have been under siege for years. At this point, it would be better if the government attempted to work with telecom and IT companies to improve their infrastructure in rural and far-flung areas of the country where they could potentially have a significant impact. Focusing on improving technological outreach is obviously more important than grand statements regarding a service that will be available several years from now.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 16th, 2016.
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  #964  
Old Saturday, September 17, 2016
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Default September 17th, 2016

Date: Saturday, September 17th, 2016


Rebuilding goodwill with the US


On at least one front, Pakistan’s diplomatic ties with an important international ally are beginning to improve. In recent months, Pakistan has been embroiled in a tussle with India due to the increased use of violent force in Kashmir. India has retaliated by repeatedly raising the issue of separatist elements in Balochistan. The US, with which Pakistan had seen a cooling in diplomatic relations, has now clearly stated that it is does not support the separation of Balochistan, nor does it agree with the Indian government’s stance on this matter. This clarification was given by the US State Department representative in response to a question by an Indian journalist. It is now unlikely that India’s intention to raise this issue in the UN’s General Assembly will be met with the reaction it had hoped for. The ploy to conflate military violence against Kashmiri civilians with the Balochistan issue does not seem to be working.

The US has made further efforts to regain Pakistan’s trust in recent days as was evident from the statements of US Special Representative Richard Olson, who lauded Pakistan’s commitment to curbing terrorist activity in the region through both military operations and sharing of intelligence information with neighbouring countries. He went on to appreciate Pakistan’s role in providing asylum for Afghan refugees for the past several decades and urged the country to continue its efforts in this regard. While talking about the need for the Pakistani administration to take a unanimous stand against externally focused terrorist groups, Olson pointed out the Pakistani government’s commitment to rooting out terrorist safe havens. These statements by the US administration reflect a change in perception that has taken place in recent months which is far removed from the harsher views being aired previously. Clearly, the US acknowledges and understands the important role played by Pakistan in the South Asian region and the need for maintaining a relationship based on trust and goodwill with one of its key allies. It is hoped that the present US stance on key issues will also contribute to the normalisation of relations between Pakistan and its neighbouring countries.

Towards taming tax troubles


Pakistan has become a signatory to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) Multilateral Convention on Mutual Administrative Assistance in Tax Matters. The development comes as the country seeks to enhance tax enforcement laws and increase revenue to address a chronic fiscal deficit. While the move is welcome, experts suggested that it will be a long-term process, where benefits would be reaped after sustained efforts and a commitment to implementing laws — an area where Pakistan remains weak. The convention, which foresees exchange of information among signatories, will also help Pakistan unearth individuals who have hidden their wealth in tax havens.

A tax expert suggested that the exchange of information would also depend on the countries’ own laws, which could limit the scope of the convention. In Pakistan, domestic banks have resisted the move to provide information to the Federal Board of Revenue given its reputation as well as a general reluctance that stems from protecting customers who have heavy deposits. Additionally, Pakistan’s income tax laws that have legal lacunas will act as barriers towards meaningful action. Generally, economic managers in Pakistan are well aware of the issues. Their failure to act against these elements does not come from lack of knowledge, but from an inability and unwillingness to go after the big guns. Governments have been guilty of handing out tax exemptions in hopes of securing vote banks. The country has relied on indirect taxation and penalised already taxed segments of the economy. The result has been even more devastating — it has caused an increasing informal economy. Failure to hold the population census has only made matters worse. In such a scenario, becoming signatory to the OECD convention conveys the government’s intention. But it is not enough to stop a phenomenon that it has caused in the first place due to decades of ignorance.


The delay in anti-honour bills


Women in Pakistan continue to be maimed and marooned at the hands of their male counterparts, particularly in Punjab. They are forced to watch their backs as even their closest relatives lack empathy for them, often a sign of criminal psychopathology. According to figures reported by Aurat Foundation, 44 per cent of killings in Punjab, in the name of honour were committed by husbands, fathers and brothers. Here, our legislators and law-enforcement agencies are not interested in viewing violence against women as a serious concern. Moreover, they are not even intent on reprimanding criminals who commit these violent acts. Presently, the Anti-Honour Killings Laws Bill 2015 and the Anti-Rape Laws Bill 2015 remain to be adopted. Despite the heavy volumes of such violence, the bills have remained only on paper since their first introduction in January 2014.

It is suspicious as to why the government remains unwilling to expedite the adoption of these two bills, which aim to devolve the authority that is granted to families, usually male relatives, in personally settling these criminal cases, and term the pretext of honour a punishable offence. Superficially, stakeholders blame an inability to build consensus over the bills but it appears that more so, they are unable to build conscience over the matter of honour killings. Just over Eid holidays, a man and a woman in Khanewal were hanged in the alleged name of honour, and in a second case from Multan, two men, one of whom was a woman’s alleged lover, were shot by relatives for the same reason, all pointing to the lack of regard for due process of law. Parliamentarians continue to bicker over personal issues and ignore imperative matters impacting the lives of women. The Panama leaks can be debated and protested, but the bickering needs to be taken outside. Inside, they must do their jobs, with some commitment to logic and sanity, which encompass serving all genders of this country and ensuring their safety and protection.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 17th, 2016.
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  #965  
Old Monday, October 03, 2016
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Default October 3rd, 2016

Date: Monday, October 3rd, 2016

A call for help

As relations between Pakistan and India continue to deteriorate, the top military and political leadership in Pakistan has come together to present a united front. Most recently, after cross-border firing which resulted in the deaths of two Pakistani soldiers in what was termed a ‘surgical strike’ by the Indian establishment and media, the government of Pakistan has categorically denied that any such strikes took place. Amidst the war mongering that is being led by the Modi government, several false reports made the rounds regarding these so called surgical strikes which later had to be taken back due to lack of supporting evidence. Meanwhile, the PM called a cabinet meeting during which the government clarified its intentions to resolve the issue without resorting to force, however, it also vowed to defend the country’s borders against such violations. The Indian government’s attempts to take attention away from its atrocities in Kashmir by vilifying Pakistan as an instigator were also deplored. India’s attempts to shift the blame for the Uri attack on Pakistan and to try and take revenge were severely criticised. During the meeting, the Pakistan army’s response to Indian aggression was also praised and the military was assured of the government’s and public’s full support.

A call was made to the international community to take notice of the escalation of aggression as well as the human rights violations taking place in Indian-held Kashmir. Top-level meetings, including the inter-provincial National Action Plan gathering which is expected to be attended by the provincial and military leadership, are scheduled for next week. Despite all the calls to peace during the past several weeks and Pakistan’s attempts to raise the option of resolving the Kashmir issue through dialogue rather than yet another conflict, there does not appear to be any similar response from India. The Modi government has whipped up war hysteria and is now having to follow through with its grandstanding, a course of action which could end very badly for the entire region. The Pakistani leadership’s decision to exercise restraint is a wise one.

Protecting minority rights


September 27 marked a historic day for Pakistan’s minorities. Previously, Pakistani Hindu citizens had no means to register their marriages, reflecting a system that wilfully neglected to acknowledge them as citizens with equal rights in the country. However, the National Assembly finally passed the Hindu Marriage Bill-2016, which will provide a system for the country’s two-and-a-half million Hindus, by which to register their marriages and handle other matrimonial matters dealing with legality and the state. The number of Hindus may since have dwindled, since the Hindu community have been marginalised by the system for decades. Nevertheless, the passage of this bill is an exemplary step by Pakistani lawmakers. The hope is that it remains in focus until it is implemented as a legal act.

One of more consequential aspects of the Bill, even greater than the registration of Hindu marriages, is the goal to end abductions of married Hindu women and their forced conversions. Registration of marriage and divorce is an ordinary matter of the state, but the blatant violation of human rights in the way of abductions and forced marriages is sordid and needs to end at all costs. Nonchalant attitudes towards violations that rob citizens of their free will cannot continue while our leaders continue attending UN general assemblies year after year, because a basic tenet of UN membership is to protect the rights of all people. The passage of the Bill is timely with the recent attendance by our PM at the UN General Assembly. This time should also serve to allow our lawmakers to review other laws that deliberately seek to sideline minority and other smaller communities of Pakistan: the Ahmadis, the Christians, and the Zoroastrians among some of them. We will not see a denouement to the persecution of precious Pakistani communities until lawmakers and law enforcement not only openly denounce violations but end the systemic marginalisation through protective laws and their implementation, as this Bill hopefully seeks to do.

Feeling the heat


Pakistan faces threats and challenges that in terms of being existential as in a threat to the viability and very existence of the state, are far greater than terrorism or even incompetent governance — though the latter is unlikely to in any way mitigate the oncoming disaster. It is global warming that is rolling towards us; indeed Pakistan is already experiencing the effects of this inexorable phenomenon and is in the top-ten states globally of those going to be most adversely affected by the phenomenon. Note the use of the phrase ‘going to be’. There is no ‘if’ or ‘but’ or prevarication to be had in this matter. Global warming is an accomplished reality. There are still a minority that argue that the impact of human activity in the last two centuries is not the primary driver but the arguments either way are today virtually irrelevant. It is happening, it is happening fast and Pakistan is indifferently prepared for it.

The latest information on the warmer world comes from the UN Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC). The job of IPCC is to collate and synthesise a range of reports and aggregate them into a big picture that is digestible for scientists as well as the common man — and even more importantly in the local context for government policymakers. The 2°Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) threshold for the increase to be termed ‘dangerous’ is going to be exceeded by 2050, and a leading climate scientist says that there is ‘no chance’ of the increase being pegged back to 1.5°C, and 2°C may be attained before 2050. This is extremely bad news for every government for the next 33 years, whatever their political hue. Floods, droughts, intense storms, heatwaves and forest fires are all going to increase, in all likelihood both quickly and dramatically. Extreme weather is advancing and it is here to stay. The year 2015 was the hottest on record and 2016 is shaping up to be even hotter. Steps to mitigate what has the potential to be overwhelming need to be planned and taken now. We are not holding our breath.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 3rd, 2016.
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  #966  
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Date: Tuesday, October 4th, 2016


A time for solidarity


The Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, called an all-parties meeting on Monday, October 3, in a timely effort to gain cross-party unity at a time of national crisis. We support his move at the same time as wondering why parliament and a public debate were not more appropriate — but perhaps there were national security issues that could not be discussed in the public domain. No matter, political hostilities were suspended for the duration and parties that have sought the downfall of the PML-N government sat with it at the table as is right and proper at a time such as this. The meeting was convened to formulate a unanimous response to Indian actions in Occupied Kashmir and the ongoing and escalating tensions along the Line of Control (LoC).

The joint statement issued at the end was notable for the strength of its language, blunt and unequivocal, and its 19 points ranged the entire spectrum of Indo-Pakistan relations. It was jointly owned across the political spectrum, a signal that there was a willingness to espouse unity in the national interest.

Some points stand out — collective condemnation of Indian action over all aspects of the Kashmir issue, the Indian ‘scuttling’ of Saarc (a move it has long wanted to make), the threats to deploy the ‘water weapon’, a nod to the international community as to Indian action — perhaps a recognition that events of recent weeks have produced little more than a ringing silence internationally. The reconstitution of the National Security Committee of parliament in a coordinating role ought also to be warmly welcomed.

It is now for the diplomatic cohort to raise their game, for Pakistan to deploy its considerable resources and to begin to turn threat into opportunity. There were wise heads around the table, not all of them from the PML-N and if the PM really wants to capitalise on the event he will do well to utilise them, whatever their affiliation. At bottom, there was measured restraint, no sabres rattled or threats uttered and this is as it should be, because there really is strength in unity.

A widening split


August 12, 2016 may well be marked as the day on which the latent schisms within the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) began to tear it asunder. On that day the leader of the MQM based in London, Altaf Hussain, made a speech which incited his followers gathered in Karachi to violence, as well as making statements that were distinctly unpatriotic and offensive to the armed forces. It has proved to be a speech too far, and the party has been imploding in terms of its senior leadership ever since. Fortunately, the turmoil at the top has not thus far translated into turmoil on the streets, and the rank and file membership appear to be waiting and watching events, perhaps unsure of outcomes as Altaf Hussain has declared himself incommunicado.

What is clear enough though also of uncertain outcome is that the London and Pakistan leadership groups are not on the same page, and are not even working from the same playbook. The MQM-P is nominally led by Dr Farooq Sattar who has announced that he has been elevated to being the party’s convener. Not so says MQM-L which has said that his basic membership is revoked and that he has betrayed Altaf Hussain.

The sooner these unhappy matters are resolved the better for all concerned, but particularly the MQM ordinary members mostly in Karachi. They have voted the party in and have every right to expect that their elected representatives will discharge their duties appropriately, which means that the party has to have an active and effective leadership. Nothing is forever in politics as elsewhere in life, and for the MQM this is a period of transition. It was never going to be pretty or easy but the London connection was past its sell-by date as was arguably its absent leader who was increasingly out of touch with some uncomfortable realities, not least his own capacity and ability to lead in absentia. If Dr Sattar can bring order to the stage then so be it. The leaders in London are yesterday, and the MQM urgently needs to be today and tomorrow. We await developments.

Sindhi gains national status


Seventy years after the emergence of Pakistan and asround four decades after the creation of Bangladesh, Pakistan’s diversity of languages remains a contentious issue. The Sindh Assembly recently adopted a resolution to recognise Sindhi as a national language. Giving Sindhi a national status will allow it to be an optional subject in school curriculum across the country. This is a step in a direction that Pakistan should have long walked towards. People of all provinces have had respective demands to give their languages a national status. It is hoped that following the Sindh Assembly, other provincial assemblies will also raise this issue again and push the centre to recognise the legitimate space for regional languages.

In countless countries there is no national language. In India for instance, while the official languages of the federation are English and Hindi, each state has its own official language, with no language having a “national” status. But in Pakistan even debating the issue is seen as against national unity. It unfortunate that the citizens of Pakistan are deprived of studying the languages spoken in their country when in many schools, students have the opportunity to learn Arabic, French and other European languages. Urdu was adopted as the national language to unify the country, except that it was among the major contributing factors for the increasing feeling of discrimination faced by Bengalis. In fact, the International Mother Tongue Day is observed to mark this discrimination, where on February 22, 1952, the police killed Bengali students in Dhaka for protesting to include Bangla as a national language. Clearly, the approach of using Urdu as a tool to unify failed long ago.

The policy of maintaining Urdu supremacy is discriminatory, more so because it is the mother tongue of less than 10 per cent of Pakistan’s population. The demand to recognise provincial and regional languages is a legitimate one that should no longer be suppressed by declaring it a “sensitive” subject.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 4th, 2016.
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Date: Wednesday, October 5th, 2016.


Bilateral dialogue — an option?


Despite the tough stance currently on display by Pakistan and India, the establishment in both countries realises that war would be nothing more than a folly. Armed to the teeth and ready to fight to the death, with a complicated history and an emotional public, any military conflict between the two neighbours could fast erupt into an uncontrollable disaster with extremely negative consequences on both sides. Acting on this understanding and perhaps due to the pressure exerted by the international community, which has been viewing these simmering tensions with alarm, national security advisers of both countries have spoken twice in as many days. Sources have revealed that during the discussions, Pakistan’s intention to de-escalate was reiterated, however, it was clarified that this does not imply lack of resolve in responding to cross-border attacks by India in a similar manner. While these talks have been seen as a positive step, things have not improved on the ground.

Fresh reports on cross-border firings at the Line of Control continue to emerge as do new vitriolic statements in both countries’ ongoing verbal duel. Meanwhile, the top political leadership in Pakistan has vowed its support for the military multiple times in recent days as well as its intention to continue support for the Kashmiri people’s struggle for freedom. The current situation is following a pattern that often emerges whenever there is a flare-up in the Kashmir issue. It quickly becomes conflated with cross-border tensions, accusations are flung about and during the escalating fears of war, the people of Kashmir are forgotten. Their freedom struggle once again becomes a footnote in our history books while months or years elapse before Pakistan and India again reach the point where bilateral dialogue becomes a viable option. All parties involved in this conflict well understand its underlying causes and the way forward, yet jingoistic nationalism which promotes war is commonplace. There is now an immediate need for both countries to adopt a pragmatic approach and recognise the importance of de-escalating tensions before any more damage is inflicted on the people caught up in this conflict.

The Taliban ascendant


Once again the Afghan Taliban have demonstrated their military reach and capacity with another assault on the city of Kunduz. They held Kunduz briefly a year ago before beating a tactical retreat, undefeated by Afghan forces and American air strikes. Today, those same Afghan forces aided again by American air power and possibly American Special Forces are conducting clearing operations in the city. The centre is said to be cleared, and Taliban are said to be hiding among the civilian population. Government forces are reporting what for the Afghan conflict is a very high body count but offering little by way of objective evidence of that. Provincial officials with a finger on the Kunduz pulse opine that it could still fall, Afghan forces efforts notwithstanding.

As the fighting raged, President Ashraf Ghani was en route to Brussels to try and drum up international donor interest in the plight of his beleaguered country. He is hoping to secure aid till 2020 and he is going to have an uphill task. The world has wearied — again — of Afghanistan and its eternally intractable problems. It matters not that most of those problems are the direct or indirect product of external interference in Afghan affairs.

Who rules in Kabul is of crucial importance to Pakistan. The current government is weak and divided, and depending on which map one believes the Taliban control between a third-and-a-half of the country and are nowhere being rolled back. At best the Afghan National Army is holding the line, at worst it is crumbling. In Pakistan, Operation Zarb-e-Azb has been mostly successful in ridding the tribal areas of extremists but they have merely relocated and often to Afghanistan, or absorbed themselves into the local population as before — they are not militarily severely degraded and the regularity with which they conduct bomb attacks in Pakistan is testament to their durability. If Kunduz falls and the Taliban consolidate, then Kabul is on the horizon.

CPEC — still a lack of clarity


Considering the importance of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) for the future of the nation, there is a remarkable lack of clarity about some of its components. This is the largest project undertaken by the state, it will have an impact on the lives of every individual and the government is still havering about the western route that passes through Balochistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. Such was the irritation of the Chief Minister of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, Pervaiz Khattak, that he raised the matter at the All-Parties Conference on national security held on October 3. His argument was that the western route must be an integral part of the project, and it may come as a surprise to many, particularly the Chinese who are underwriting much of the capital infrastructure costs, that it is not already.

The CPEC is no less important to the Chinese than it is to Pakistan. The western route to the Chinese is in the short-to-medium term more important than the central and eastern routes, in that it directly links the port of Gwadar to the markets of southern China and Central Asia, and provides a shorter sea route for goods into China than the long way around through the South China Sea. It was reported that the PM had agreed in the past to give the western route priority but the government’s subsequent action — or inaction — suggests otherwise. The Chinese have in the recent past expressed frustration at the lack of urgency on the Pakistan side to any number of aspects of the CPEC. For their part the Chinese are far advanced with the construction of a fibre-optic internet line between Kashgar, Gwadar and Rawalpindi. The problem as ever is the ‘Punjab first’ mentality that dominates PML-N thinking. There are practical difficulties associated with the western route — lower traffic flows and security to name but two — but they are not insurmountable. An outbreak of holistic thinking by the government would be warmly welcomed.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 5th, 2016.
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Date: Thursday, October 6th, 2016.


The revival of Parliament


Parliament, that most august of bodies at the apex of our democratic life, has been slowly fading in importance and relevance to the political life of the nation. The machinery of governance has increasingly been transferred to an extra-parliamentary set of processes that are at the behest of the ruling party, do their business mostly out of the public eye, and have little by way of transparency or accountability. Robust parliamentary debate within a House filled with all parties’ elected representatives is a thing of the past, ancient history, and the House is rarely full. To be sure the peripheral functions of the House in the form of parliamentary committees continue and are generally accepted to be mostly hard working, but the public playing out of the political drama now happens behind the arras.

The joint session of parliament on October 5 was called by the prime minister and is a welcome return to best custom and practice. The national security of the state has come under sustained threat after the assassination of Burhan Wani, since when relations with India have spiralled steadily downwards. The PM told the House that it was for the international community and the United Nations to give the Kashmiris their right to self-determination and free them from what he described as “Indian tyranny” in the occupied valley. It is now 70 years since they lost their freedoms and wrongs need to be righted.

The session was symbolic in that today there is a need to display national unity that transcends party politics and that very unity needed to be publicly displayed rather than within a closed-door meeting. The need to build a united front, at least in terms of national security, is vital. Political differences will remain but on security at least there can and should be common cause. Underlying differences are forever going to remain as long as multi-party politics is the chosen form of governance, and those who wish ill to Pakistan will be both quick and keen to exploit any splits in the ranks.

That said, and laudable as the convening of the joint session is, the PML-N needs to address some fundamental issues that have arisen since the last general election, not the least of these being an apparent unwillingness to listen to any other party or individual who may disagree with them. The transfer of debate out of the public domain is symptomatic of that. The general public only knows what was discussed in the all-parties meeting on October 3 by the post-meeting statements of those in attendance. A record may be available to those with internet access but hardly represents the epitome of transparency. Opposition parties have further cause for grievance over the matter of foreign policy and its development, of which there is a notable absence of public debate.

To conclude, there was an unfortunate absence in parliament — the Pakistan-Tehreek-e-Insaf(PTI) led by Imran Khan. The party absented itself on the grounds that it would be endorsing the legitimacy of the PM if it attended, which the PTI claims he has lost as he has not accounted adequately in the PTI eyes for the revelations of the Panama Papers. In current parlance, the PTI has got the optics of their decision to opt out very wrong. Whilst it may reflect the internal priorities of the party and individual political interests, this cannot be allowed to trump the overarching issue of a collective stance on national security.

Parliament is in need of revival, of re-energising, and bringing back to the forefront of the national political narrative. It needs restoring as the workshop of democratic process, where the nuts and bolts of governance are forged on the anvil of debate, where differences are tackled with pragmatism and the needs of the state are paramount. This joint session was both timely and an opportunity to re-boot the House. We hope and trust it will not be an opportunity lost.

Ban on Indian content


In a move said to have been prompted by a similar decision in India, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) announced on October 4 that Pakistani TV channels are no longer to make Indian content a part of their transmissions.

Previously, Pakistani channels were allowed to give 6% airtime to Indian content in a 24-hour transmission cycle. Given the popularity of Indian films, music and television shows, Pakistani channels utilised this permitted airtime to its fullest extent. However, in light of the hate campaign against Pakistani artists and media content in India, this decision by Pemra has been largely supported by the viewing public. It is in large part a retaliatory gesture which could have been avoided had the Indian government and media not chosen to drag Pakistani artists in the mud or blocked Pakistani content. This petty gesture did nothing but build up further acrimonious feelings on both sides.

The conflict between Pakistan and India is largely confined to a certain area and incidents, which due to unnecessary hype, vindictive gestures and comments have ballooned far beyond the initial cause. During the past several weeks, social media, mainstream press and famous individuals have taken it upon themselves to target Pakistani artists working in India. Despite their previous popularity or perhaps because of it, they were dragged into a fight which they are not answerable for either in their personal or professional capacity.

This tendency of handling conflicts emotionally and ignoring hard evidence in favour of jingoistic rhetoric has landed the South Asian region in trouble several times in the past. It has led to the building up of false historical narratives, prompted discrimination against minorities in both Pakistan and India and caused wars to erupt. Journalistic exactitude is given up to indulge in conspiracy theories while ordinary civilians and businesses, including the entertainment industry, are targeted unnecessarily. While Pemra’s decision to respond in kind to India’s banning of Pakistani content is correct, in future the people of both countries should consider the merits of a more measured and appropriate response when regional tensions flare up.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 6th, 2016.
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Date: Tuesday, October 18th, 2016


On the road to nowhere


Of one thing we may be certain — no political leader is going to be putting one foot in front of the other on a dusty road to commence a ‘Long March’. Long Marches exist for the most part in name only (there have been honourable exceptions) and the latest politico to don the marching boots is Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, who has demanded integrated national security in the country at a Salam Shuhda Rally held in Karachi last Sunday in commemoration of a 2007 terrorist attack. He made a number of demands that included the appointment of a full-time foreign minister and the implementation of assorted resolutions passed by his father. None of these demands has the slightest chance of coming to fruition as Mr Bhutto is well aware, but nevertheless he sought solace in the tramp of feet with the announcement of a long march on December 27, 2016. Far enough in the future for people to have forgotten he ever said it if it never happens.

Meanwhile, Islamabad and the government of Nawaz Sharif are pondering how they will address the issue of another political event, not a march but a lockdown of the federal capital, by another political party — the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf led by Imran Khan. This is imminent and has the potential for considerable disruption and destruction depending on how hundreds of thousands of people are to be managed from a security perspective.

It is this latter that is of concern. Whilst there must be an inalienable right to protest — it is not a freebie. Rarely mentioned is the real cost in hard cash of protecting political freedoms and rights. Policing costs money. Money, more hard cash, is lost by the businesses that are negatively affected. Who picks up the bill? Ultimately but indirectly it is the common man that underwrites the protection of those exercising the right to march on the road to nowhere. Spare a thought for the rest of the (non-marching) population as the metaphorical boots are pulled on before treading the road to nowhere.

Time to up the game


If ever Pakistan needed to look to the quality and efficacy of its diplomatic services then that time is now. The BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) summit has just ended in Goa and India has used it as a vehicle to promote is goal of the isolation of Pakistan — diplomatically, economically and any other variant of isolation it can lay tongue to. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the course of the summit dubbed Pakistan ‘the mothership of terrorism’ which has been swiftly picked up regionally and around the world, a descriptor that is easy on the page for headline writers everywhere and has the ring of durability about it. The best Pakistan could do — there was no place at the table for us — was recycle the mantra that it has deployed for years, namely that India is hiding its brutalities in Kashmir, refusing to abide by UN Security Council resolutions and that innocent people are dying every day.

All of the above are as true today as they were yesterday and will be tomorrow, but it is interesting to note that other BRICS nations were lukewarm to the call to stand together in condemnation of perfidious Pakistan and condemn it as strongly as has India. It is of note that other BRICS members restrained India from the use of provocative language in the final communiqué from the moot. There were hints that China in particular is not keen to follow the Indian line, and as has been suggested in these columns before may be a factor in any future resolution of the Kashmir issue because it stands in the way of its own grand ambitions. Whilst Mr Modi made hay — and headlines — there was nothing in the Pakistan shot-locker beyond some dampish squibs that made no front pages and popped to no discernible effect. If Pakistan is to attract both the attention and the support of the global community and organisations such as BRICS, then it needs both to up and fundamentally change — its game. Pakistan is not isolated and will not be so, but it needs a diplomatic team that delivers that message adroitly and forcefully, not faint-voiced and from the far-away sidelines. Fortune favours the brave, never the meek.

Pakistan’s security ranking


When it comes to bad press, Pakistan possesses a milieu of negative stories. Every two years, the World Economic Forum publishes the Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report ranking approximately 140 economies in various categories, or ‘pillars’ as it refers to — that impact a country’s travel and tourism competitive index, upon which rankings are based. In the current report, Pakistan ranks 138 out of 141 countries in the safety and security pillar, which uses five indicators to assign rank. Those indicators, specific to violence and crime, are business costs of crime and violence, reliability of police services, business costs of terrorism, index of terrorism incidence, and homicide rates. Pakistan beats out only Yemen, Colombia and Nigeria in these five aspects and sits behind the US, which ranks at number 73 of 141, courtesy of its alarming rise in gun violence. Nonetheless, we have our own heavy ‘house cleaning’ to do.

Considering the indicators on which Pakistan’s ranking as the fourth-most dangerous country in the world is based, especially business costs of crime and violence and reliability of police services, the ranking is met with accolades for its precision. We are reminded of the billions of dollars’ worth of economic loss when Karachi was shut down due to strikes. Acknowledging that the country’s economy is on a rising trend, the stakes have been higher in recent times whenever a strike or rally is called or we experience a day of mourning. This brings us to the aspect of an inept police force that has failed to protect citizens. The force lacks ethics training as well as advanced training and tools to effectively execute its role. Police politicisation is also problematic whereas it is axiomatic that a police force must be impartial. While terrorism has been reduced, the government needs to develop better security infrastructure in response to this report, so that Pakistan’s business and tourism industries can flourish once again.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 18th, 2016.
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Date: Wednesday, October 19th, 2016.

A confrontation too far


The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf has announced that it is to delay its planned October 30 blockade of Islamabad until November 2 in order not to interfere with important Bar elections which is all very well but there are deep concerns. To call the actions that the PTI is proposing ‘peaceful’ is fallacious. The blockading, as in impeding the day-to-day working of government departments and the passage to and fro of normal business and their employees is far from peaceful. It is an aggressive intervention that is going to have consequences that are likely to be violent and potentially destructive, and the PTI must be aware of that.

The PTI has every right to protest about whatsoever it chooses, but the threat to close down the operations of governance is a dangerously high-risk strategy that could trigger instability not only in Islamabad but other parts of the country as well if the PTI decides to exercise its muscle on the streets. As recent rallies have shown the PTI still carries considerable street-weight. The party can bring hundreds of thousands on to the streets, and if it says that it will blockade the organs of governance in Islamabad then it has to be taken at face value.

For the government there are few options. Principal among those is the use of force and it may be that this is what the PTI is seeking to provoke. The government is duty bound to physically protect the offices of state. Alternatively the government could at least in part accede to some of the PTI demands for an inquiry specific to the Sharif family who maintain they have done no wrong — then allow that to be proven by inquiry. Another option would be to counter the blockade by the physical diversion of PTI convoys to areas outside the city centre — again with violent consequences. The Panama Papers are not going away, and that reality has to be reconciled with governance — and violent confrontation is going to solve nothing either.

Playing with the Big Boys

Although he is unlikely to have realised it at the time and quite possibly later, Indian PM Modi got his head handed to him by the BRICS nations. The BRICS summit was not the place to play poker with stone-eyed high rollers like Russia and China and inveigle them into a position that suits your domestic narrative. The BRICS states: Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, comprise two of the most powerful states in the world after the US, and two of the most powerful states in the southern hemisphere. India is something of a lightweight compared to other members, and Mr Modi, to quote an observer ‘does not know when to fold’. The BRICS group is not just an opportunity for smiles and photo-ops, it is about hard business. China is probably the most kinetic member of the group, and the state that carries the greatest heft when it comes to organising other states, including India with which it has a dynamic trading relationship, into a shape conducive to the achievement of its own long-term goals. Peripheral but closely related to BRICS is the Chinese relationship with Pakistan which although a non-BRICS state is key to Chinese exploitation of its investments in Central Africa in particular.

Thus it is no surprise that China weighed in on the Pakistan side by not toeing the Modi line, essentially backing the Indian opposition parties in doing so. China has zero interest in isolating Pakistan and very considerable interest in India and Pakistan de-escalating their conflict over Kashmir which to say the least is inconvenient for them. Terrorism is the headline issue but trade is the running subtext, that and the expansion of wealth and stability nationally and regionally. The Modi move bought him nothing ultimately, and if he wants to play Big Boys Games then he needs to study the Big Boys Rules first.

Easing transport troubles


Expanding the Lahore Metro Bus service and adding 200 new buses will, hopefully, ease some of Lahore’s transport woes. Since its launch, the metro bus system has been much criticised, and often very rightfully so, for its high expenditure and cost ineffective transport system, but the need for a mass transit system is undeniable. The metro bus offers not only an affordable and comfortable journey, but also a dignified one. The way in which people are forced to commute in Pakistan, hanging out from bus exits and sitting atop the roof is not only dangerous, gender-discriminatory and extremely inconvenient, but also comes with a major health cost.

The metro bus service, then, offers some alternatives to countless who are restricted in employment and other opportunities by their lack of mobility. But the public transport crisis in Pakistan must be taken more seriously across the board and in more simpler ways, such as merely adding the number of buses on the streets. The Punjab government also needs to expand its focus from Lahore to other parts of Punjab, while other provincial governments, especially that of Sindh, needs to gear up and provide an efficient transport system to Karachi’s nearly 22 million residents. In fact, Karachi’s bus network has been on the decline, while population has only increased. There are roughly 9,527 operational minibuses in Karachi, as compared to the 22,313 it had in 2011.

In the past decade, the country’s urban centres have seen rapid investments in road and bridge construction. All this have been for those who can afford private motorised transport and even then, the traffic situation has not improved. Same is the case in Lahore. Despite huge investments, grave traffic problems remain. The Punjab government needs to introspect as to why they have so far failed in providing more efficient ways to address public transport and traffic problems and focus on lon1g-term solutions aimed at reducing gender and class discrimination in everyday public life.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 19th, 2016.
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