On the sidelines of Saarc
THE action on the sidelines of Saarc summits is often more interesting than what happens within the parameters of the regional forum. The 15th summit held in Colombo last weekend was no different. With explosive accusations being traded between India, Pakistan and Afghanistan — three of the eight member countries — there was little hope for progress on the central theme of Saarc: trade. The agreement on the South Asia Free Trade Area (Safta) that was signed in Islamabad in 2004 set a 2012 deadline for zero customs duty on the trade of a majority of products between India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Tariffs for the whole eight-member bloc were meant to be eliminated for all practical purposes by 2016. Yet Safta has languished as India and Pakistan have squabbled over non-tariff barriers and the agreement has yet to be ratified by either country. The 15th summit was never going to be the place where trade was going to receive a boost.
The main focus was on terrorism and security. Indian allegations of Pakistani cross-LoC violations in Kashmir and involvement in attacks on Indian interests in Afghanistan, especially the Kabul embassy suicide bombing last month, had soured the atmosphere in the run-up to the summit. For good measure President Karzai delivered yet another one of his rebukes to Pakistan at the summit itself, accusing Pakistan of nurturing “terrorism and terrorist sanctuaries”. Prime Minister Gilani’s separate meetings with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Karzai, prompted reportedly by the American assistant secretary of state who was in Colombo as an observer, could do little to paper over the cracks. Relations are set to remain strained as the ISI stays in the global spotlight.
Indeed, the Pakistani prime minister has been dragged into yet another controversy over the ISI, the alleged masterminds of the Kabul embassy attack. Indian Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon told reporters that Mr Gilani had promised to “conduct an independent investigation” into the attack, no doubt triggering alarm bells within Pakistan that the government is yet again stirring the pot of confrontation in haste. What has the prime minister given his consent to? Why are pledges being made to the Indian prime minister without taking the Pakistani nation into confidence first? The global scrutiny of the ISI at this moment is already drawing questions, with some observers wondering about the timing of the allegations as much as the allegations themselves. President Musharraf has mused about conspiracies being hatched to undermine the ISI. If there is proof of wrongdoing on the ISI’s part, India, Afghanistan and the US must present it to Pakistan and the government must act swiftly to punish those responsible. Short of that, the prime minister is only destabilising his own government by making unilateral promises to ‘enemy’ nations.
More attacks on girls’ schools
HELL-BENT on foisting their brand of religion on society, and reneging on a peace deal with the government, militants in Swat burnt down five more girls’ schools over the weekend. Over the past year alone, about 50 girls’ schools have been destroyed in Swat, and the trend shows no signs of abating. The actual figure for girls’ schools that are no longer functioning ever since the Taliban threat emerged has crossed 100 and keeps rising while the number of students affected is in the thousands. Militancy of this sort can be cited as one of the main reasons behind the growing crisis in women’s education in the NWFP. According to the Pakistan Economic Survey, the 10+ female literacy rate in 2006-07 was 28 per cent as opposed to 30 per cent the previous year.
With the burning down of a girls’ school in Quetta on Sunday, there are fears that this trend might be spreading. It is not clear who carried out this attack as no one claimed responsibility. But even if ordinary criminals, and not religious militants, were behind the Quetta attack, the incident has no less serious implications. It shows that there is no dearth of violent elements ready to target vulnerable sections of society and obstruct progress in crucial areas like education. After all, incidents like the large-scale destruction of girls’ schools in the north may give ordinary lawbreakers a chance to vent personal or ideological grievances by taking cover behind the march of religious militancy.
The response of the government to such incidents has ranged from lukewarm to indifferent. There has been no vociferous condemnation, much less action, to stop the perpetrators. The government’s apparent helplessness in this matter has been boosted by its patriarchal vision of society. It appears unmoved by the fact that Balochistan has the worst female literacy rate (20 per cent) in the country and that girls’ schools in the NWFP and Fata are being constantly targeted. The strategy of attacking female education undermines all hopes of society moving towards greater enlightenment. In the absence of any security guarantees from the government, parents are withdrawing their daughters from school in militancy-infested areas, while civil society has failed to react to this crisis. In Karachi, the MQM has sounded a warning that needs to be heeded. Political parties that do not share the Talibanisation agenda should now be mobilising the people to ward off the creeping evil.
Animal power, please
A COUNTRY that is a long way from basic humanism can rightfully balk at the notion of institutionalised animal care. However, our wildlife can no longer be robbed of well-being and kindness. Take the recent case of a female leopard in Karachi’s Safari Park that is currently imprisoned in a birdcage for turkeys. Animal experts also suspect that its four long canines, a distinctive feature of this species, were extracted but park authorities are oblivious to the ‘theft’. Unsurprisingly, the cat has not taken to its alien surroundings with much feline grace as no effort has been made to replicate its natural habitat. The leopard is so far just another statistic in the escalating list of crimes against animals; the irony is, unlike other countries, here cruelty is perpetrated beyond the streets, in sanctuaries such as zoos and wildlife reserves. Other unforgettable shockers include the deaths of big cats — one a Bengal tiger — caused by a fatal parasitic infection at the Lahore Zoo last year. Despite Pakistan’s status of a signatory to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, animal death toll has witnessed an upsurge for over a year. But rising numbers have hardly raised official eyebrows or ruffled any humane feathers.
Unlike India where Maneka Gandhi is the aggressive face of animal protection, Pakistan faces a void regarding an animal rights movement. Hence, ignorance vis-à-vis the virtues of a thriving animal kingdom and misinterpreted religious edicts have turned us into a beastly society that pelts stones at emaciated stray animals. Relevant departments must join forces with NGOs to initiate social and media appeals that promote compassion and prescribe penalties for offenders. Also, accountability mechanisms for keepers of zoos and parks and forest officers must be introduced to keep animals healthy and safe. Most importantly, these laws have to be impenetrable for influentials who hunt dying varieties for a lark. The government has to funnel more funds and focus towards wildlife shelters as individual benevolence like Edhi’s cannot be taken for granted. It is time society was reined in to value all life.
Could it get any worse?
THINGS were not supposed to turn out this way. Pakistan was supposed to become a better place for the governed once governance passed from the hands of people who had limited contact with the populace to those who were the people’s elected representatives.
That happened more than four months ago but the trajectory of the steep economic decline that began in 2007 has continued. The gulf between those who govern and whom they govern has widened. There is an amazing disconnect between the political establishment and the citizenry on one issue that matters the most — economic growth and economic well-being of the population.
That the people are suffering under the heavy burden of so many different weights could not possibly have escaped the attention of those who occupy positions of power in Islamabad. They are politicians and they must be listening. But if that is the case, why are they not acting? Why hasn’t anybody in power not delivered a strong message that touches on at least three things: Why has Pakistan’s economy unravelled so quickly? What does the government propose to do to put the economy back on track? How can the people help by moving forward the process of adjustment?
Let me begin with the point about unravelling. Some of us knew that the model of development followed by the administration of President Pervez Musharraf was not sustainable. That was for many reasons. It depended on the goodwill of foreign governments and on the confidence in Pakistan’s economic future on the part of foreign investors. It did not include generating resources from within the economy as one of the important components of the government’s strategy, if such a strategy existed.
Foreign governments could change their mind if the policies followed by Islamabad were not to their liking. Foreign investors could lose confidence if they did not like the track the economy was following. Both have happened; certainly in the case of the latter. There is growing concern in many western capitals that Pakistan has gone off course.The model was also not sustainable since it allowed the private sector unchecked space within which to operate. Even Adam Smith, the founder of modern economics, had recognised two centuries ago that while the quest for private profit was good for the overall health of the economy — there was considerable social utility in private greed, he wrote — the governments must have the will and the capacity to apply checks and controls when circumstances justified such interventions. The Musharraf government allowed the private sector freedom without appropriate checks and balances.
It also contributed to the weakening of the state. Although it concentrated an enormous amount of authority in its own hands, the regime did not develop the institutional capacity to handle it. It also sucked away power from the provinces, leaving them increasingly dependent on central direction and federal largesse. These moves towards centralisation were followed even within the federal government. First the Ministry of Finance and then the Prime Minister’s Secretariat became the repositories of power. But the power that was accumulated was exercised without any careful strategic thinking.
The third deep flaw in the ‘Musharrafian’ model was a by-product of the second. It did not show concern about the very uneven distribution of the rewards of growth among different segments of the population and among different parts of the country. The result is that today Pakistan has one of the most skewed distributions of income and wealth in the developing world.
That these are some of the several flaws in the approach to development pursued by the previous government is now well recognised. What has not been worked out in any kind of strategic detail is how the situation can be remedied. Some of us advocated the issuance of a clear-cut statement by the new rulers on the course they wished to follow in the first 100 days they were in office. That was done but the programme laid down — if it can be called that — was not detailed enough or imaginative enough or sufficiently tuned to the conditions in Pakistan to make a difference to the course the economy was following. In August, Pakistan’s economic situation is worse than what it was in March when the transfer of political authority took place.
In the meantime, the country’s external circumstances continue to worsen. Pakistan, heavily dependent on oil imports, has had to deal with an unrelenting increase in the price of the commodity. It had also to accommodate the sharp increases in food and edible oil prices in the international commodity markets. The situation is such that any further postponement of action would weigh very heavily on the already burdened economy.
The government needs to move on four fronts simultaneously. It needs to focus on its own finances, raising more resources through better tax administration and controlling its expenditures. Attention needs to be given to non-development expenditures. Watching the way the government’s senior officials are moving around the globe in large numbers does not give me the sense of a country faced with a serious financial crisis.
Second, the government needs to bring down the expenditure on imports. The drain on the accumulated foreign exchange reserves continues at an unsustainable rate. The usable reserves are much lower than the estimate put out by the government since the latter also includes bank holdings.
The third area that needs the government’s attention is help to the poor and unemployed. I have been advocating the launch of large urban and rural works programmes that will provide incomes to the poor in return for labour for community development projects. The expenditure on such a programme should come from reductions in government activities that are generally wasteful and don’t contribute anything to good governance or to development.
Finally, the provinces should be asked to develop their own fiscal and expenditure programmes. Greater space should be given to them to raise their own resources for undertaking high-priority programmes. This would bring government closer to the people and also reduce the burden on the federal system.
There may be some appetite among the donors who regard Pakistan as too important a country to fail. Approaching them with a well-developed strategy for adjustment, reform and sustained development might get them interested. The ball is in Islamabad’s court. One can only hope that it will have the political will to play it.
New malaria vaccine
Scientists have developed a revolutionary vaccine that could protect billions of people against the world’s deadliest disease: malaria. The team — whose results were published in the journal Nature Medicine last week — have created a vaccine that provided complete protection when tested on animals.
Now the group, which includes British, Irish, French and US researchers, is preparing to launch human vaccine trials. ‘The crucial point about the technology we have developed to create this vaccine is that it could be used not just to take on malaria but to fight other diseases for which we still have no vaccine, for example HIV,’ said project leader Simon Draper of Oxford University.
Malaria infects more than 500 million people every year and kills two to three million, most of them young children living in sub-Saharan Africa and South East Asia. The disease is a key cause of poverty and a major hindrance to economic development. People become infected when bitten by a mosquito carrying the malaria parasite.
The parasite migrates to the liver, then erupts to spread through the bloodstream, destroying red blood corpuscles which carry oxygen from lungs to muscles. Symptoms include respiratory problems, anaemia and brain damage. If untreated, patients often slip into a coma and die.
Anti-malarial drugs are effective, but too expensive for poor countries. So to develop a one-off vaccine scientists have concentrated on two approaches. The first uses deactivated — or attenuated — parasites in order to trigger immune responses. The second involves isolating just one piece of the parasite’s protein coat. This can then be grown in genetically modified bacteria and injected into individuals.
To date, however, neither approach — although effective with the majority of diseases — has worked with malaria. So Draper and his team — funded by Britain’s Medical Research Council and the Wellcome Trust — took a completely different approach.
‘We used a virus — the adenovirus that causes the common cold — which we genetically engineered so it contained a piece of the malaria parasite’s coat,’ Draper said. ‘If you inject this modified virus into the bloodstream, it triggers the manufacture of antibodies — a special form of immune defence — that will attack malaria parasites.
‘This is the first time that modified viruses have been used to trigger antibodies, which are the best form of immune defence for blocking malarial parasites.’
— The Guardian, London
OTHER VOICES - Sindhi Press
Time to curtail power of undemocratic forces
FIRST the cabinet division issued a notification placing the Intelligence Bureau and the Inter Services Intelligence under the administrative and operational control of the interior division. Within a day, through another notification, the ISI was allowed to continue functioning under the prime minister. This has raised many questions. The government has inadvertently shown where the power lies when it comes to the handling of affairs in this country. This recent action has impelled the people to question whether the agencies are calling the shots and has cast the government in a poor light.
The American CIA has accused the ISI of having links with the Taliban. The intentions of the CIA and the US require thorough scrutiny. While the CIA may be under the nominal control of the US government, it is common knowledge that in practice it is not controlled by the political government. Some CIA operations are carried out without taking the government into confidence or are simply disclosed at a later stage.
These facts undermine democracy in both developed and underdeveloped countries while exposing the power of the establishment. Even in countries where democracy is flourishing, the establishment has a dominant role in decision-making. Allegations have been levelled against these agencies from which they cannot be exonerated. It was the CIA that created the [mujahideen] in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union and facilitated them with money, arms, logistics, etc. The situation may have changed today but the past cannot be ignored.
Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani has refuted the allegation about the ISI but we all know that while dealing with external affairs governments behave in a particular manner, and tactical political statements are issued so that the solidarity of the country is not threatened. Now coming back to the point: who enjoys the real power in both democratic and dictatorial regimes?
Controlling democratic governments, overthrowing political governments and rigging elections have not been a problem for the agencies. The late Benazir Bhutto had recorded these experiences in her books. Former ISI chief General Hameed Gul has made such disclosures time and again. From the formation of the IJI to the horse-trading of politicians, the political wing of the ISI has been involved throughout. It has also been admitted how rigging was carried out in the 2002 elections that brought the PML-Q to power.
It was the establishment which did not transfer power to democratic governments. It is high time … the political role of undemocratic forces is curtailed so that real democracy is introduced in the country. — (Aug 1)
— Selected and translated by Sohail Sangi.